Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Heirens will bring out our ‘worst’

It was just over the weekend that a thought popped into my head – How long will it be before Bill Heirens pops back into the news again?
Headlines like these swayed sentiment

Back a couple of decades ago, I was a reporter-type who covered the proceedings in which Heirens argued that he “didn’t do it” – as in the slayings of three females (including 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan) back in 1946.

NOT THAT THE authorities were ever swayed by Heirens (who at times has had fairly sophisticated P.R. ‘machines’ trying to build sympathy for him). His efforts to gain release from prison were never successful.

Until now.

For it seems that Heirens is dead, and not by electrocution (which would have been a real possibility back in the mid-1940s) or lethal injection. News reports indicate he was found unresponsive in his cell at the Dixon Correctional Center and was transported to the University of Illinois Medical Center.

He was pronounced dead Monday night at about the same moment that I was driving home from a candidate forum significant only because I can now claim to have met Patrick Thompson (the Daley nephew and grandson who is running for a seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District).

BUT BACK TO Heirens. He’s gone.

So the “event” that I expected to put Heirens’ name back in the news will NEVER happen. Meaning, he won’t make another appeal for release from prison. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board won’t be put in a position to have to reject him again.
Books like these also hurt

Because those officials always made it clear they weren’t about to do anything to seriously consider the claims of Heirens, which at one point tried to blame the fact that he went to prison on the news coverage of the era.

Admittedly, the crimes for which Heirens ultimately pleaded guilty got big attention. They had two visual elements that were so grisly and creepy that readers could latch onto them – the head of Suzanne Degnan being found in a sewer and the message written on a mirror in lipstick that read, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

WHICH MEANT THEY got major coverage as hysterical as anything that Nancy Grace or anyone of her ilk is capable of doing these days on television. The mood in Chicago was angry, and Heirens claimed he entered a guilty plea to avoid being railroaded into a conviction and execution.

I know law enforcement types who say the fact that Heirens was allowed to live at all (even in prison, where he is officially the longest-serving inmate in Illinois Department of Corrections history) is evidence of how compassionate a legal system we have.

Not that anybody is pleased. I have been reading countless comments on assorted Internet sites from people who are seriously arguing that one execution would have been cheaper than 66 years of incarceration.

They want him dead. They want him suffering. I wonder if, even now, there will be people who will forevermore complain that Bill Heirens didn’t get what he deserved – even though he literally is a case where our system locked him up and threw away the key!

INSOFAR AS WHETHER or not he “did” the crimes, I never really knew what to think. I don’t doubt that our society was prepared to behave with a ‘lynch mob mentality’ when Heirens was arrested.

I know some people who were always convinced of guilt by the fact that Heirens’ fingerprints were found at the apartment of one of the dead women AND ALSO on the ransom note that was sent to the parents of Suzanne Degnan.

But I also know there are so many ways in which police can react to public pressure to make an arrest and close a case, rather than worry about trying to get at “the truth.”  It also helped his case that Heirens ultimately became a “model” inmate – the first to earn a college degree while incarcerated who ultimately worked his way down to minimum-security prisons.
A significantly different portrait

He even had a woman, Dolores Kennedy, take him seriously, as she wrote a book (“His Day in Court”) that tried to make his case. I have a copy that I can see sitting on my bookshelves while I write this commentary. But I don’t know who was swayed by her prose.

PROBABLY, NO ONE. The official “mood” of the populace was such that he wasn’t going anywhere, and now there is nothing more that can be done.

When you have modern-day prosecutors comparing your behavior to something out of a Stephen King horror novel (as what happened to Heirens), you probably never had a chance of having your argument taken seriously.

Now if we could only just lay his remains to rest and put an end to this horrid saga – instead of having to listen to the crackpots of our society, who seem to be enjoying his death too much and feeling the need to take one last pot-shot.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should read the blog of Stateville inmate Paul Modrowski: