In 1982 Dolores Kennedy’s father, an attorney, told her he had met William Heirens while visiting a client at the Vienna prison and was deeply impressed with the man. He suggested she go see him sometime. “It seemed kind of strange that he would tell me that,” says Kennedy, 52, an Oak Park realtor and former legal secretary. “He hadn’t talked much about his business activities or made requests of me before.”
Kennedy’s father, who had spent most of his legal career representing underdogs, died the next year of liver cancer, and she put the request on the back burner. “But it kept nagging me that I hadn’t visited or written,” she says. So in 1986 she drove to Vienna with a friend and finally met Heirens.
“I was impressed immediately with his knowledge and sincerity,” says Kennedy. “He was such a comfortable man, a caring person, a good listener.” When she learned that his aging mother had not visited him in three years because of lack of transportation, Kennedy contacted her, drove her down soon after, and has continued to be her chauffeur. Kennedy has since traversed the 350 miles to the prison at least once or twice a month and has taken on William Heirens’s release as a major project.
A peppy, articulate, highly organized woman, Kennedy is cofounder and chair of the Parole for Heirens Committee, a loose aggregation of people concerned about criminal justice, including Bryant Feather, chairman of the criminal justice department at Chicago State University; James Doherty, an assistant Cook County public defender; and Norval Morris, professor of criminology at the University of Chicago and a nationally recognized expert on sentencing and parole. The committee’s aim is to assist Heirens’s legal efforts and counteract his longstanding image as a demon incarnate.
“We make no judgment about Bill’s guilt or innocence,” says Kennedy, “although I think there’s every possibility he was not guilty. If he was responsible, he was a very sick 17-year-old. But that’s not what he is now.”
That view is shared by committee member Arthur O’Donnell, a veteran Chicago criminal attorney who represented Heirens in his 1973 parole-board hearing and still provides him with occasional legal advice. When the state discharged Heirens on the Degnan murder in 1965, he notes, it said in effect that he was rehabilitated. Twenty-four years later there’s still no parole. “Look what he’s accomplished!” says O’Donnell. “He is a success of the correctional system. He’s made it work. He should be paraded as an example for others.”
Yet, O’Donnell believes Heirens will never win freedom without a substantial shift in public opinion–a shift, he says, that does not seem to be imminent. At bottom, he declares, “the man should be released not so much for his own sake but for our sake–for society’s sake. We cannot completely throw out rehabilitation as a possibility. What are we telling the population of our prisons when we say there’s no hope of freedom for some–no hope no matter what they do or what they become? That’s why I think this is so important.”
Committee cofounder Dorothy Drish, a 20-year board member of the Cook County Department of Corrections, met Heirens in 1967 when he was at Stateville, and she has been a friend to him ever since. She has also become a close friend of his mother. Drish and her late husband John were intensely involved in prison ministry for some 35 years, providing temporary shelter for parolees and helping them get jobs or education. They also took some 100 foster children into their Evanston home during those years. “I’ve seen so many cases where a man after four or five years in prison gives up and becomes a vegetable, burned out, looking at the walls,” she says. “Bill was alert, active, concerned, and he did so much with what he had. He still does.”
Drish speaks by phone with Heirens at least once a month, usually early on a Sunday morning. “He’s as interested in my life as I am in his,” she says. “Many others who have committed far worse crimes than Heirens have been quietly released. He deserves to be free–he’s earned it. I’m absolutely convinced he will be freed. If not, then there’s no justice in the correctional system.”
In 1959 William Witherspoon shot and killed a Chicago policeman, was sentenced to capital punishment, and spent 20 years on the Illinois death row. In 1979 a federal court reduced that sentence and he was granted a parole. An outspoken member of the Parole for Heirens Committee, Witherspoon has vivid recollections of the man he knew at Stateville. “This is a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” he says. “And he responded to everybody’s need. An inmate would come to him with some insignificant question on his court case, and he’d always take it seriously. He wasn’t out in the yard playing baseball or lifting weights. He was hitting the law books or talking to some guy.”
Witherspoon, who lives in Detroit, says he would gladly sponsor Heirens if he is released, and he could arrange a position for him in Project Start, a program to assist ex-offenders with which he has long been associated. “Too many people are dredging up corpses,” he says. “This is today. We’ve gotta look at the moment now. That’s what exists.”
Norval Morris has argued in his scholarly writings that society has every right to impose different punishments for identical crimes, that on some occasions a criminal may be properly punished with extreme severity as a kind of example to society, as a deterrent to other wrongdoers–while another equally guilty party receives a lesser punishment. But he also says that there are “outer limits” in civilized society on the quality and duration of unequal punishments that can reasonably be imposed, and that William Heirens is an example of unequal punishment carried beyond those limits. “Independent of his guilt or innocence, he’s a different man. That’s absolutely clear. And he has served 43 years.”
Morris says he nevertheless understands why state’s attorneys and other elected officials feel constrained to beat Heirens down whenever his name surfaces. “He’s become a symbol to the get-tough-on-crime advocates. They don’t argue about people nowadays. They argue about symbols. So the politicians say, ‘Why should we risk votes by supporting this character?’ I can understand that.”
But Morris, like Witherspoon, wonders what this says about the public’s moral health, about its willingness to let go of the past and accept the present for what it is. “After a great lapse of time,” he says, “surely every decent society draws a veil.”