Decades-old murder case needs review
Chicago Sun-Times--Letter to Editor
February 2, 2003

The past few months have been an exciting time to be a student at Northwestern University's Legal Clinic. Many of us have had the opportunity to assist staff attorneys with their work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and we hope that our assistance played a small role in Gov. George Ryan's decision to pardon and commute the sentences of those who were convicted under a flawed system.

However, for some of us, Ryan's announcement was bittersweet, because William Heirens' name was not on the list of those who were pardoned or whose sentences were commuted.

In 1946, William Heirens, then a 17-year-old University of Chicago student, was arrested for the murders of Frances Brown, Josephine Ross and 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan. Police and the press immediately announced that they had found the infamous ''Lipstick Killer.'' Heirens repeatedly professed his innocence, but after days of brutal treatment by police (including beatings, sleep and food deprivation, an injection of sodium pentathol, and a spinal tap performed without anesthesia), and after relentless persecution by the press, Heirens' attorneys and parents persuaded him to plead guilty in order to escape what would be certain death in the electric chair.

After serving nearly 57 years in prison, the 74-year-old Heirens asked that his sentence be commuted to time served. We became involved in Heirens' case last spring when we joined the team working on his clemency petition. It was difficult to investigate a case well over 50 years old, and even harder to unpack truth from fallacy considering the politics and prejudicial press surrounding the case. However, after examining the facts, we were astonished, even embarrassed, that the state of Illinois continued to hold Heirens in prison--it seemed clear to us that Heirens was an innocent man.

Despite what we believe about his guilt or innocence, however, Heirens' case is a textbook example of a wrongful conviction. It was contaminated by all of those sources of error that have plagued the criminal justice system in Illinois: prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct, incompetent defense counsel, prejudicial pretrial publicity, junk science and false confessions.

Furthermore, because Heirens pleaded guilty, the evidence against him was never put to the test of the adversary system. In addition, Heirens has satisfied the sentences he received for each murder according to the formula used for determining a life sentence at the time of his conviction. In 1983, a federal judge ruled that the Prisoner Review Board could not apply newer, stricter rules for parole to justify keeping Heirens incarcerated, and therefore ordered Heirens released.

However, police, prosecutors and the press waged an inflammatory campaign to keep Heirens behind bars, eventually persuading the General Assembly to pass a resolution urging the Prisoner Review Board not to release Heirens. Even the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals caved in to public pressure and ignored its own precedent to prevent Heirens' release. Heirens' case exemplifies all that is wrong with Illinois' justice system; it contains all the flaws and injustices that troubled Ryan and provoked his courageous actions. In light of this, it seems that no man is more deserving of his freedom.

However, Ryan's final days were monopolized by his review of death penalty cases--cases whose urgency left little time for him to review the convictions of those who did not face the ultimate penalty. We hope that Gov. Blagojevich will continue Ryan's efforts to remedy Illinois' deeply flawed criminal justice system.
Releasing Bill Heirens should be the first step he takes in that direction.

Christopher Coleman,
Sarah Lively,
Class of 2003,
Northwestern University School of Law

Bill Heirens
Innocent Imprisoned

Truth in Justice