No tears for William Heirens, the Chicago serial killer who claimed he was framed

William Heirens recently died in prison after serving a lifetime term for the murder of a little girl, two women and countless burglaries. (For those who don't remember this famous case, read Norm's Chicago Then for an excellent account.)For years, "Friends of Bill Heirens" and various innocence project folks tried to get him sprung, claiming that he had been railroaded.

I think not. They got the right guy. I said so in several op-ed columns I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. Here's one:

Heirens ' `Conspiracy' Is Laughable

Chicago Sun-Times - Sunday, March 5, 1995

Author: Dennis Byrne

Poor Bill Heirens , locked away all for almost half a century for three separate murders that he didn't commit, including the strangulation and dismemberment in Rogers Park of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan.

Tsk. What a shame. How could this happen? Why did all those judges say, in near unanimity, that the sly Mr. Heirens belongs in prison until he dies - in more comfortable surroundings than his victims?

Well, the Spring Bill Heirens Publicity Blitz that got under way last week has an explanation that's sure to convince everyone: The cops, state's attorneys, Illinois Attorney General, Cook County Circuit Court, Illinois Appeals Court, Illinois Supreme Court, federal appeals court and the media all got together, with - get this - Heirens ' own defense lawyers, to somehow make him confess to the crimes.

Central to this railroading is the supposed betrayal of him by his own defense team, headed by the (conveniently) late John Coghlan. Or as Heirens said in a letter responding to my Sept. 20 column: Coghlan "abandoned his duty to me and opted to cooperate with the prosecution to secure my conviction."

At the time, Coghlan was the town's leading defense attorney, as towering a figure as any of the heat now defending O.J. Ironically, we have Coghlan's own word thatHeirens is guilty.

It came during one of the endless hearings in which Heirens tried unsuccessfully to get sprung, this in 1952 before Judge Harold Ward. As now, Heirens ' ploy was to attack his lawyers' competency. Elmer Kissane, the assistant state's attorney at the hearing, told me in a letter that he objected to Heirens ' testimony about what went on between him and his lawyers unless he waived his attorney-client privilege. Heirens agreed, and his three defense lawyers then testified that Heirens confessed to the three murders.

They also testified that they and Heirens ' father (a corporate investigator) went to the murder scenes and validated that Heirens indeed had known about unpublished details of the murders. That Heirens and his parents acknowledged his guilt and begged them to save him from the electric chair; that a 39-page document was prepared, titled "Directions to My Attorney, Save Me From the Electric Chair" in which Heirens and his parents acknowledged that he was guilty of the three murders (and 23 burglaries), and that all the state's evidence and all defense options were outlined. (I guess Heirens should add even his own parents to his list of people who betrayed him.)

Thomas E. Epach Jr., who has represented the Degnan family in Heirens ' frequent parole hearings, said Coghlan was brought into the case because everyone believed that he was the only one who could save Heirens ' life in a period when, if you were sentenced to death, you surely died, and soon. Coghlan succeeded, and for that he's being repaid with Heirens ' slander.

For the young and newcomers to this town who buy Heirens ' line that he has been treated badly by the courts, Epach has this reply: "Bill Heirens has spent more time in court than most downtown lawyers." And each time, he loses, including the time the majority of an appeals court said: "Within a month of ( Heirens ') arrest, with the knowledge of the state's case against him and with the advice of his parents and counsel, petitioner decided to plead guilty in order to avoid the electric chair, which was his objective throughout. By obtaining life sentences, he achieved his desire (not) to take the chance of being electrocuted."

A deal should be a deal, even for a confessed degenerate.

Dennis Byrne is a member of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial  board.


Leave a comment
  • Very interesting reading. My dad (Norm, Chicago Then) has told me about this story several times. I read a very interesting article about it today. It was in GQ 2008.

    He really did proclaim his innocence. Stories such as this fascinate me. I would love to be involved in working for cases of possible innocence. However, in this case, I believe you are right. No tears.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Teppi Jacobsen:

    You're either a paid liar or you're gullible.

    Being that a known kidnapper, Richard Thomas, had already confessed to the murders before the police arrested Heirens. And that even Thomas' family publicly claimed it time and time again, proclaiming Heirens was innocent and Thomas was guilty...

    I'd be willing to bet the petty thief was innocent while the child molesting kidnapper went free.

    ALL because the people who charged and convicted him weren't able to admit to their mistakes then lies and coverups.

    That isn't justice.

  • In reply to Mia Sāgara:

    I read up on the case, and the way it was handled was appalling.

    I'm not claiming that Heirens was 100% innocent, but there wasn't enough evidence to prove he was responsible for the killings and you could see how desperate the authorities were trying to force him into a confession.

    A lot of the statements made by others involved in the case were inconsistent and smelled of coverups painting Heirens as a murderer even though it's more than likely he didn't do it. Chicago State Attorney at the time, William J. Tuohy, was known to be politically ambitious and was once suspected for corruption, was obviously a major player in the case and trying to make Heiren confess through underhanded means, perhaps as a way to propel him forward in his career.

    Absolutely disgusting.

  • In reply to John Does:

    For 21st century norms, there might have been reasonable doubt if he had chosen to go before a jury. I've read enough about the trial and interviewed some of the principles in the case (those still alive) as well as Heiren's main defender (Lawyer Stone), and although it is just my opinion, I still believe they got the right guy.

  • fb_avatar

    It is quite plainly obvious that William Heirens, a thug and petty crook, was not guilty of the lipstick killings. All the evidence that ''proved'' his guilt have been called into question by experts and there is much evidence to support his claim of innocence. And the legal system have been shown to lie throughout his case. They claimed that a polygraphed test was conclusive evidence, yet when it was released it showed the opposite. They claimed they found his print on the back of the Degnam random letter, yet this was after they had had to send the letter to the FBI for prints. Richard Thomas confessed to the Degnam murder before the police decided to arrest Heirens, and they then forget this fact, despite the fact that Richard Thomas's profile fit the crime a lot easier than Heirens's. Richard Thomas was a kidnapper, Heirens was not. Richard Thomas had committed crimes against kids (such as molesting his daughter), Heirens had not. Richard Thomas used a car shop across from the Degnam home etc. Heirens was almost definitely not the lipstick killer and I am shocked to discover that your precious legal system cannot see this. Heirens was many things but, it seems, he was not a murderer and he died in jail for a crime he did not commit. I believe him guilty of this crime for years but then looked into the facts of the case. He wasn't guilty and though he was a crook, it sickens that he died in prison.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Alan Atheling:

    *Degnan. Sorry it is 6:28 and I had no sleep.

  • In reply to Alan Atheling:

    I definitely agree with you. I believe he was innocent of the murders. As for him stealing yes he was guilty. There's so much holes in this case. I believe the real Killer confessed which was the man named Russell. His own family believes he did it and that William was innocent. It's definitely one messed up case. Media always likes to make things worse and tell many lies. Although being locked up he accomplished a lot compared to others who aren't. It's just sad to know he was in there for murder.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Alan Atheling:

    Thank you for all the information!

    I'm new to this case and already less and less convinced that he committed those murders.
    I'd be willing to bet this writer for the Chicago Tribune was given the task of defending Chicago's failed duty of justice and WRONG decision of holding another innocent person in prison... because admitting their own guilt of all the lies and cover-ups for it... would've been too much for their image. They couldn't risk tarnishing their reputation with this high profile story starring a failed legal system, AGAIN.

  • fb_avatar

    There is not enough evidence in this case to say he is guilty. And if if it was you and I in his place it wouldn't be just words on paper u would want fairness. If handwriting does not match and finger print was rolled then how can you say he is guilty without a doubt. I think until someone is proven guilty with out any doubt he still might feel better because you have someone to blame but, it don't make it right.

  • fb_avatar

    Very obvious he was innocent of these murders. Too bad they couldn't admit they were wrong.
    The system that prosecuted him wasn't interested in finding the true killer. How pathetic Chicago Illinois.

  • fb_avatar

    If I'm convinced of anything It's that hardly anyone is buying your phony story, Dennis.

    Looks like you're paid off to defend Chicago's faulty and corrupt legal officials in their blatant deceit and the thwarting of justice.

    Being that a known kidnapper and child molester, Richard Thomas, had already confessed to the murders before the police had arrested Heirens. And that even Thomas' family publicly affirmed it time and time again, proclaiming Heirens was innocent and Thomas was guilty...

    I'd be willing to bet that the petty thief was innocent while the child molesting kidnapper went free for the crimes he perpetrated and Heirens unjustly served a life sentence for.

    ALL because the people who charged and convicted him weren't able to admit to their mistakes then lies and coverups.

    That isn't justice, Dennis.

    You're a bona fide sellout.

Leave a comment

  • Advertisement:
  • Advertisement:
  • ChicagoNow is full of win

    Welcome to ChicagoNow.

    Meet our bloggers,
    post comments, or
    pitch your blog idea.

  • Visit my new website

    I'm a freelance writer, editor and author. I can help you with a wide variety of projects. Check out my new website at

  • Subscribe to The Barbershop

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

  • Dennis Byrne’s Facebook Fan Page

  • Like me on Facebook

  • Our National Debt

  • Twitter

  • Tags

  • Recent Comments

  • /Users/dennisby/Desktop/trailer.mp4
  • Advertisement: