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.