William Heirens's Day in Court | Letters | Chicago Reader

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William Heirens's Day in Court



To the editors.

Last summer staff writer Bob McClory wrote about Bill Heirens, imprisoned in 1946 for the murder and dismemberment of Suzanne Degnan and the murder of two women, and still imprisoned 44 years later [August 25].

It was a controversial article, as Bill Heirens is a controversial subject, and McClory's findings were widely discussed for weeks following its publication. In his article, "Kill-Crazed Animal?" he questioned the entire proceedings of the Heirens case, both in 1946 and since. And he acknowledged that "Almost from the time of his arrest, Heirens's defense attorneys, John Coghlan in particular, entered into a strange, unprecedented cooperative relationship with State's Attorney Tuohy."

Bill Heirens, threatened with the electric chair, confessed under a plea bargain and for 44 years he has professed his innocence and litigated his case in the hope of obtaining the trial he never had. Recently, he has been back in court on a post conviction petition, William Heirens vs. The People of the State of Illinois. His central charge remains "ineffective assistance of counsel."

As Bill Heirens's friend and founder of the Parole for Heirens Committee, I was present in the courtroom of Judge Michael P. Toomin during the current litigation of Bill's petition. Ironically, it is the same courtroom where he was sentenced 44 years ago. And so, of course, I heard Judge Toomin's ruling on Monday when he dismissed the case.

I met Bill four years ago through my father, a Peoria attorney, and since that time I have worked steadily on his behalf. Recently I completed a rather sizeable manuscript on his case and his life, thoroughly researched and completely documented. And during the years I have spent researching and writing, I have uncovered an amazing story.

Ineffective assistance of counsel is a charge that the courts have backed away from for over four decades. Yet to call Bill's counsel in 1946 "ineffective" is to be generous. What little investigation they did was haphazard, often leading to faulty conclusions. They failed to explore alibis or test the state's "evidence," as surely good and faithful defense counsel would do before urging a client, to say nothing of a 17-year-old boy, to enter into a plea bargain, accepting guilt for three brutal murders.

As Bill and his current attorney documented in their responses to the state's motion to dismiss, there is evidence that these same "defense" attorneys revealed client privilege information to the Chicago Tribune, which, in the final analysis, forced Bill to confess under the spectre of the electric chair.

Despite popular opinion, Bill Heirens did not choose to confess, he preferred to go to trial, but the press and the authorities, including his own attorneys, made certain that was not possible. There was only one thing they wanted from Bill--an admission of guilt--and they didn't care what they had to do to get it. A confession was politically advantageous to them all. The only loser was Bill.

As Bill said to Walter Jacobson several years ago: "In 1946, I had to be guilty to live."

Recently, the Office of the Public Defender ordered a new comparison of Bill's handwriting with the printing on the ransom note and the writing on the wall of the Frances Brown apartment. The expert, who studied the same samples given to the state's expert in 1946, reported the following:

"No like structures can be found between the ransom note and the Heirens samples.

"No like structures can be found between the wall writing and the Heirens samples.

"No like structures can be found between the ransom note and the wall writing."

Subsequently, any fingerprint evidence remaining at the detection bureau of the Chicago Police Department was subpoenaed. This was the only real evidence against Bill and, in light of recent discoveries, Bill's attorney felt it should be reexamined. The State's Attorney moved to quash the subpoena and Judge Toomin allowed him to do so.

We also learned that there were substantial alibis for Bill's whereabouts on the nights of both the Degnan crime and the Brown murder.

And Judge Toomin knew all this as well.

Yet, ignoring what was before him, he ruled that "the end for William Heirens has passed as far as these claims are concerned," thus perpetuating the refusal of the system to look at the truth about what happened to Bill Heirens in 1946, and, by so doing, continuing the incarceration of a very worthy man.

The judge remarked that most of the principals in the Heirens case are already dead. Bill Heirens, however, is alive, and in prison. He has been there for 44 years, from age 17 to age 61, serving time for murders that there is good reason to believe he did not even commit.

Is this justice? Or could it more rightfully be labelled "politics."

The book I have recently completed is entitled His Day in Court, after the dissent of the late Justice Luther Swygert in 1968 who decried that: "....The State's Attorney and defense counsel usurped the judicial function, complying with a community scheme inspired by the press to convict the defendant without his day in court."

How sad that, 45 years after the fact, a legal secretary must be the one to give him what should have been rightfully his.

Dolores Kennedy

Oak Park

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