Working on the Railroad
"There are more ingredients of wrongful conviction in this one case," Steven Drizin was saying, "than in any other case I have ever seen or the Center on Wrongful Convictions has ever seen. There is unprecedented police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, defense incompetence, prejudicial pretrial publicity, junk science, questionable lab work, defective forensics work, probably false confessions, and mistaken eyewitness identification. I think that's it. I may have forgotten one."
Well, OK. But the murder of Suzanne Degnan on Chicago's north side was a crime so foul that if some poor sap hadn't spent the last 56 years of his life in prison for it, people might think the criminal justice system in Illinois wasn't up to its responsibilities. Tiny Suzanne wasn't simply kidnapped and murdered back in 1946; she was carved into pieces. And the Degnan murder was merely one of three to which William Heirens confessed: lipstick scrawled on the apartment wall of an earlier victim begged, "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."
The Chicago press lined up alongside the police and state's attorney William Tuohy to solve these ghastly crimes. A Daily News artist was given the ransom note to study scientifically with his "scriptoscope" for hidden clues--which he claimed to find. When Heirens--a college student and habitual burglar--had been rounded up but was denying everything, the Tribune's George Wright produced a story that shattered his resolve. It began: "This is the story of how William George Heirens, 17, kidnapped, strangled and then dismembered Suzanne Degnan, 6, last Jan. 7 and distributed the parts of her body in sewer openings near her home."
Was this tale based on Heirens's confession? So far as he knew, he hadn't made one. Maybe he'd confessed without knowing it after being injected with sodium pentothal, though the transcript of that interrogation has never surfaced. At any rate, there was no arguing with the Tribune. That paper would later boast: "For the first time in newspaper history, the detailed story of how three murders were committed, naming the man who did them, was told before the murderer had confessed or had been indicted. So great was public confidence in the Tribune that other newspapers in Chicago reprinted the story solely because the Tribune had said it was so."
Heirens got the message. Believing--or so he said later--that his choices were down to a confession and life or a conviction and the electric chair, he confessed. "There were about 30 facts wrong in his confession," says Rob Warden, one of his recent champions.
Heirens has insisted on his innocence ever since. If an inmate can be said to have distinguished himself in prison, Heirens has (in 1972 I covered his college graduation for the Sun-Times). His failure to admit to and repent his depravity is the only evidence that it secretly continues unabated.
Newspapers are no happier reflecting on old sins than prosecutors are. In 1983, when a federal magistrate ordered Heirens released from prison, the Chicago press glanced backward. Articles in the Sun-Times and the Tribune reminded the public that this was the guy who'd lipsticked "catch me before I kill more," and then the General Assembly resolved that Heirens remained "a danger to society" who should remain behind bars. Finally the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the magistrate.
As it happens, handwriting analysts have been found who say the lipstick scrawl doesn't resemble the Degnan ransom note; for that matter, the ransom note doesn't resemble samples of Heirens's handwriting. Warden, a former Daily News reporter, tells me that a story that circulated among old-time Chicago newsmen had it that the lipstick was actually the work of a legendary Chicago American police reporter named Buddy McHugh, who'd decided to make a good story better. Another story has McHugh arriving at the home of the pious aunt Heirens had been staying with dressed as a priest--so he could talk her out of Heirens's diary.
Back in those good old days, reporters were the pals of cops and had the run of crime scenes. Warden's pal Jim Tuohy, who broke into journalism in 1963, says an old-timer talked about going out to cover a murder and discovering another reporter lying drunk on the floor next to the corpse.
Since 1983 a lot has happened that cuts in Heirens's favor. A police commander was thrown off the force for torturing suspects, and a moratorium on executions was imposed because so many condemned men turned out to be innocent. Today, the presumption that in Illinois the police always arrest, and state's attorneys always convict, the right person is shattered beyond repair. Even the confession has been discredited as the ultimate proof of guilt. Some lawyers and reporters now devote their careers to overturning wrongful convictions, and Illinois' governor seems to believe that there've been more than we'll ever know. And Heirens has a champion, a writer named Dolores Kennedy, who in 1991 published William Heirens: His Day in Court.
Three months ago Kennedy asked Warden--who's now executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school--if the center would look into Heirens's case. Because Heirens was 17 when he was arrested, Northwestern's Children and Family Justice Center, where Steven Drizin is staff attorney, also was drawn in. "This case crystallizes everything I've worked on in the last decade," says Drizin, "which includes the rehabilitation of youthful offenders, the vulnerability of teens to giving false confessions, and the wrongful conviction of juveniles."
Law students from both centers are now researching Heirens's case. On February 19 the centers submitted to Governor Ryan and to the Prisoner Review Board a petition for executive clemency. April 4, when the board takes up Heirens's case, is one date that looms large. Another is next January 13, when Ryan leaves office.
In 1995 a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, and handwriting and fingerprint experts tore into the case against Heirens but failed to persuade the board that he was innocent. The new petition argues that although he probably is, so much evidence and so many police files have disappeared there's no way to prove it. But on the basis of his irreproachable prison record, and because "his case stands out as one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States," he should be freed.
Adrienne Drell, a former Sun-Times courts reporter who recently went to work for Drizin, contributed a ten-page memo, "Convicted by the Press," to the effort. "Prior to 1966," she wrote, "the American media held a virtual unbridled license to publish or broadcast whatever reporters could get their hands on. The 1934 case of carpenter Bruno Hauptmann, convicted of the kidnap-murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son, is illustrative. The frenzy of stories, many woven from sheer invention, created a climate that could only have resulted in Hauptmann's conviction (and eventual execution).... The same lynchmob type of circus atmosphere prevailed in 1946 when Heirens was brought in for questioning...and in 1954 when Ohio osteopath Sam Sheppard was convicted of the bludgeoning death of his wife Marilyn....But Sam Sheppard was luckier than William Heirens. He eventually won his freedom, and [in 1966] he also managed to change the law." The Supreme Court overturned Sheppard's conviction, on grounds, Drell noted, that "the original trial was conducted in a 'Roman Holiday' atmosphere."
Next Thursday the Center on Wrongful Convictions is holding a public symposium on false confessions from 1 to 5 PM at the law school's Thorne Auditorium. William Heirens will be a focus of the discussion. His attorneys--Drizin and Lawrence Marshall of the Center on Wrongful Convictions--will speak, and a new American Justice TV special on Heirens will be screened for the first time.
What's more, Warden is rounding up a panel of old-time reporters to talk about how things used to be--reporters who might be too young to have covered the Degnan murder themselves but remember the people who did. Warden was hoping to persuade his frequent writing partner Jim Tuohy to join the discussion, but Tuohy begged off, saying he didn't know enough about the case to add anything useful.
What Tuohy (a Reader contributor) does know he remembers from being the young nephew of state's attorney William Tuohy when the case was going down. "He was over at my house all the time conferring with my father, who was one of the best trial lawyers in the state," says Tuohy. "I remember that Uncle Bill resisted a lot of public pressure to go for the death penalty. To his mind, it was much more important to clear up the case and get a good solid conviction than risk it on a flashy trial.
"It was just taken as such a truth in the family that this is the right guy. He did it. He confessed to it. What the fuck! Even though through the years I've worked with Warden and uncovered all these phony confessions, I never applied it to Heirens and thought he was railroaded. Which I still don't."
Neither does the collective memory of Chicago, or the institutional memory of Chicago journalism for that matter. More than a half century after the tumult died, the evil of William Heirens is an article of faith.
The warm spot we Yankees hold in our hearts for our simpler cousins to the north is one of our most attractive qualities. When Scott Hamilton cried out that David Pelletier and Jamie Sale had clinched the gold, Americans couldn't have been happier. And despite what some carping media critics would later claim, it wasn't an irresponsible rush to judgment by NBC's babbling broadcasters that convinced us who'd won. It was the skaters' ecstatic reaction to their own performance. You can't fool the athletes.
Yet they lost.
The way America went to bat for those two nice kids from Canada should make us proud. Sports columnists, of course, are paid handsomely to go off half-cocked, but no less than the editorial page of the New York Times immediately stood up for Sale and Pelletier. In an editorial, "A Duo Deprived," the Times explained that "this injustice...was a throwback to the days of the cold war, when judges from the Soviet Union and its allies would reflexively support Russian skaters while Western judges would line up behind contestants from the United States." As for the Western vote that failed to toe this line, it was cast not by an individual but by a nation. "France provided the swing vote on Monday, following its own cold-war custom of infuriating its friends."
Even readers such as myself who rejoiced at the Times's gallant intervention had to wonder why 13 years after the Berlin Wall came down the old eastern bloc alliance had chosen to regroup in Salt Lake City. As the Russian camp would soon point out, geopolitical history offered the judges from Poland and Ukraine much less reason to conspire with the Russian judge and athletes than to despise them. Fortunately, conspiracists could soon board a sturdier horse. Even as the Times thundered, word was spreading that a delicate French judge--if not a proud French nation--had bent under pressure and confessed in tears. Apparently she'd agreed to a deal: a vote for the Russians in pairs would be rewarded with a vote for the French in ice dancing.
Under media siege, the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee moved with lightning speed. They decided that Pelletier and Sale did deserve gold medals--which wasn't to say that Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya didn't--and would receive them Sunday night after the ice-dancing competition in a joint ceremony with the Russians. "The immediate crisis may have been resolved," the Times pronounced in a second editorial, but "the athletes and the public are owed the full story of what happened....They are also owed assurances that vote-trading, block voting and other backroom judging deals will no longer be tolerated."
Because evidence that the 2002 Olympic pairs competition had been corrupted remained in short supply, the press indictment leaned heavily on past patterns of nefarious behavior. A 1998 ice-dancing scandal was frequently cited, as it had also victimized Canadians and as ice dancing is apparently an event so impossible to judge objectively that judges don't pretend to try. American figure skater Linda Fratianne's defeat by East German Anett Potzsch in 1980 bolstered the case against the treacherous East, as did the Soviet upset of the American basketball team in 1972, not to mention the steroid-pumped East German women's drubbing of American swimmers in 1976. A scoring error that cost Canadian Sylvie Frechette gold in synchronized swimming in Barcelona in 1992 was recalled as a blunder the IOC too slowly rectified, thereby incurring some sort of lingering obligation to Canada. And don't get us started on that South Korean light middleweight who took a whipping from America's Roy Jones Jr. in Seoul in 1988 and was handed the gold. But since you got us started, what about those gold medals snatched from Jim Thorpe in 1912?
It was time to drain the swamp.
But when the poor newsweeklies published at mid-Olympics took this tack, they strained for insight and authority on a story that had left them behind. Newsweek put Pelletier and Sale on its cover and announced, "An Olympic Reversal Exposes the Sleazy Side of Skating." Newsweek excelled at rhetoric--"gangrene...scandal...corruption...sordid history...fiasco... debacle...dirty laundry...piranha-filled waters of international skating"--and at damning precedents. Did you know Sonja Henie's 1927 world championship in Oslo wasn't legit? What Newsweek didn't have was a handle on 2002, where the theory of shameless collusion was already falling apart. Three-quarters of the way through its fiery account, a single paragraph was inserted that reeked of a desperate editor's last-minute loss of faith in his theme. "Even without shenanigans, of course, judging is highly subjective," it began, then conceded that there were respectable aesthetic grounds for preferring the Russian pair's performance, despite their slips. If so, what was all the fuss about?
"Now that we have heard about the French judge," Times sports columnist George Vecsey had opined on February 14, "I would opt for giving duplicate medals to the Canadians and not take away the gold medals from the Russian pair, who presumably did nothing dishonest themselves."
Justice always looks purest before it's achieved. When the IOC followed Vecsey's advice sullen Russia complained of home-continent favoritism, and the American press had to take Russia's point. By the morning after the historic duplicate gold medals were presented, the Times's Selena Roberts was reporting that three Western skating judges believed "in its haste to resolve a scandal, the I.S.U. invented a solution based on public outcry and Canada's all-out campaign to turn silver into gold." These judges pointed out that even if the two pairs' long programs were called a tie, the Russians deserved the gold for having won the short program.
Roberts noted that scores given by the now disgraced French judge were much more consistent with the overall judging than the scores of the Canadian judge, who, by the way, had marked Pelletier and Sale exceptionally high and Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze exceptionally low last year when the Canadians won a surprising world championship in Vancouver. Last Sunday the Times reported on its front page that the French judge--a woman of "distinguished reputation as a fair and impartial judge"--had finally had her say. Disconcertingly, she'd insisted that the relentless lobbying for her vote actually came from "senior skating officials from Canada."
By Monday, responsibility for what the Times's Harvey Araton was calling the "judging morass" had thoroughly blurred. But Araton supposed that the "unfettered North American cheerleading" had left the Russians feeling "as if they'd stepped into a cold war blockbuster starring Sylvester Stallone."
If the old western bloc did anything wrong at all, affection is the only explanation. Ice-skating pretty much forgotten as everybody went home, the American press shrugged off Sunday's ice hockey defeat in order to be happy for the victors who'd needed to win so much. "Their first Olympic championship in 50 years that seemed as long and as cold as a Yukon winter" was how Vecsey put it. "A nation that measures much of its self-esteem by its performance in this sport," explained his colleague Joe Lapointe.
While the natives are dancing and healing, it might be a good time to head north with trinkets and buy Toronto.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Sharon White.