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Continued from Part One
After standing up to the brutal interrogation tactics of the Chicago police, William Heirens continued to deny committing the murders.
Two police psychiatrists even conducted a sodium pentothal interrogation, again without a warrant, in the hope of extracting a confession from the 17-year-old suspect. Though one of the psychiatrists later admitted that Heirens never incriminated himself, newspaper stories still carried lurid details about Heirens admitting to a a second personality he named "George." Since the original transcript has long since disappeared, it's anyone's guess what Heirens actually said. All that he could recall was that the harsh treatment he received had caused him to lose consciousness during questioning. Police even tried a polygraph test but he was in too much pain for any valid results to be produced.
At some point during the grueling interrogation, Heirens suggested that "George Murman", his second personality may have been responsible for the killings. Psychologists tried to argue that this alternate personality was a way for him to express his antisocial feelings but police were skeptical about what their star suspect was claiming. Again, the media dramatized everything that came out as a way to sell newspapers though real evidence proving Heirens' guilt seemed hard to find. His fingerprints resembled what had been found at one crime scene but police were divided on whether this was enough to convict Heirens.
Still, the circumstantial evidence seemed lurid enough to ensure Heirens' conviction-by-media. A copy of Richard Krafft-Ebbing's book, Psychopathia Sexualis, was also found which had apparently been stolen. That, along with a stolen medical kit, was enough to convince journalists that Heirens was some sort of psychopathic deviant despite there being no evidence that the tools in the medical kit had been used in the murders. There was also no forensic evidence tying Heirens to the different killings although there was a gun in his possession that had been stolen in a burglary months earlier.
Despite this lack of solid evidence, the newspaper stories cheerily portrayed William Heirens as a modern-day "Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde." On July 18, 1946, the Chicago Tribune published a story titled, "The Heirens Story! How He Killed Suzanne Degnan and Two Women." The story was written by Tribune staff reporter George Wright who freely manufactured various details, including claims that Heirens had confessed to the killings (he hadn't). Though the District Attorney William Tuony, not to mention Heirens himself, denied that there had been a confession, newspapers across the country repeated Wright's allegations and insisted that it was a "scoop". For decades afterward, the story of the "scoop" that wasn't would still be proclaimed as fact whenever the details of Heirens' case were raised.
Based on the media conviction and the testimony of an eyewitness (who was later discredited), William Heirens' attorneys urged him to accept a plea bargain to avoid the electric chair. The plea bargain involved agreeing to a life sentence for the three murders in return for a confession which the attorneys drafted for him (ironically based on the account of his crimes already published in the newspapers). Heirens, along with his parents, signed this confession which should have settled the matter.
The carefully arranged press conference that would have announced the confession fell apart when Heirens failed to answer questions and largely stayed mute. The angry State Attorney changed the deal he offered to Heirens to his serving three life sentences and a possible death penalty if the case went to trial. This time around, Heirens took the new deal and cooperated fully during a second press conference. In the new confession, he admitted to all three murders and described various sexual acts that he committed during and after the deaths. As Heirens said later, "I confessed to save my life" and his apparent familiarity with the apartment of Frances Brown seemed to settle any doubts of his guilt. Whether that came from guilty knowledge or details learned from the relentless police questioning seems open to question.
On September 4, 1946, William George Heirens admitted to the killings with his parents and the families of the victims present in court. He later tried to hang himself that same night but guards managed to save his life. The following day, he was sentenced to three life terms and when asked whether Suzanne Degnan had suffered before she died, again insisted that he was innocent. Though he was denied an appeal, Judge Luther Swygert, late of the U.S. Court of Appeals, noted in his dissent to the decision, “The case presents a picture of a public prosecutor and defense counsel, if not indeed the trial judge, buckling under the pressure of a hysterical and sensation- seeking press bent upon obtaining retribution for a horrendous act.
In the aftermath of Heirens' conviction, his family members changed their surname and his parents divorced. As for Heirens himself, he went on to serve one of the longest sentences in the history of Illinois. While in prison, he learned various trades, including electronics repair, and even had his own repair shop in prison. He also earned a university degree and became an outspoken "jailhouse lawyer" by helping other inmates with their appeals. A movie that was supposedly based on Heirens, While the City Sleeps, was released in 1956.
Heirens also attempted to win clemency and an eventual release from prison but lingering memories of the crimes to which he had confessed ensured that he would remain a prisoner. After an Appeals Court ruled for his release in 1983, relatives of Suzanne Degnan publicly denounced this decision and lawmakers overturned the Appeals ruling. Members of the Degnan families also attended his parole hearings to ensure that he would never be released. Various others pleas for clemency were heard and rejected as well and William Heirens' case generated considerable notoriety, largely due to questions about the actual evidence used to convict him as well as how his confession was obtained. That he was a sick old man, confined to a wheelchair in his final years, helped add to the general sense of outrage over his being kept in prison for so long. While some old classmates still visited, virtually everyone who had ever known Heirens on the outside was long dead or disappeared.
According to one newspaper story published only a few years before his death, Heirens insisted that he had never allowed himself to become institutionalized. "“My home was outside. If I talk about going home, it would be outside.” He also said that he wanted to have a chance to travel if he were ever released, including travel on a transcontinental train and a chance to try different foods. "Lobsters. Never had a lobster. Don’t know what a lobster tastes like.”
Through it all, William Heirens remained a prisoner until his death in 2012 at the age of 1983. To his dying day, he insisted that he was not guilty of the murders and that he had only confessed because he feared the death penalty. Even after his death, Heirens has numerous champions who continue to raise questions about the evidence used to convict him.
Was William Heirens guilty? In many ways, he is regarded as a textbook case of how questionable interrogation tactics can lead to confessions that are, at best, controversial. While many of the family members of the dead women later expressed their own satisfaction about Heiren's guilt, there is still a grim possibility that the murders had been committed by someone else who was never caught.
Whether the plaintive message written in lipstick in Frances Brown's apartment had been written by Heirens or someone else, the words "catch me before I kill more" still resonate today.
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