Yesterday’s News: The Wrong Man in Jail?

A horrible double murder was committed in Saint Louis earlier this year. Two sisters of college age entertaining a 19-year-old cousin from Maryland led him out onto an abandoned bridge over the Mississippi River–a popular if scary place to be. The cousin came back alone. He told police some toughs had moved in, assaulted the sisters, and eventually thrown them into the river 90 feet below. They gave the cousin a choice–jump or be killed. Somehow he’d survived his fall and swum to shore.

A flashlight found at the scene was the clue that broke the case. It was traced to two young men, who confessed and were charged. Both later filed brutality complaints alleging their confessions had been beaten out of them.

There was one other wrinkle. The cousin had already confessed. Questioned by police with his father at his side, the youth had said he’d lost his temper and pushed the girls off the bridge. He recanted almost immediately, explaining that he was just saying what the police wanted to hear. They didn’t believe anyone could have survived such a fall.

Said a police lieutenant afterward, “He was obviously traumatized and confused by the entire incident.”

William Heirens also recanted a confession. He’s been recanting for the past 45 years. Heirens was just 17 years old in 1946, when he confessed to three murders, one of them the sensational slaying of six-year-old Suzanne Degnan. The girl was taken at night from the bed of her north-side home, then strangled and dismembered.

Arrested six months later in a burglary attempt–clearly a very troubled teenager, Heirens was a habitual burglar–he was questioned by police for six days before being charged, no lawyer at his side much less a parent. To make him open up, the police illegally injected him with sodium pentothal. When he passed a lie detector test, police suppressed the results. The prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and the press collaborated with each other, Heirens’s attorneys urging him to confess while the papers took his guilt for granted. As Heirens continued to insist he had killed nobody, a copyrighted exclusive under the byline of the Tribune’s George Wright 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.”

So, yes, Heirens eventually said he did it. His choices, he says now, were made clear to him: if he pleaded guilty, life in prison, which they could give him anyway just for the burglaries; the electric chair if he was found guilty of murder in court. “In 1946,” he would remember, “I had to be guilty to live.”

Heirens was shipped off to Joliet and he’s been in prison ever since. The Tribune patted itself on the back. “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 was indicted. . . . For a while Heirens maintained his innocence, but the world believed his guilt. The Tribune had said he was guilty.”

Can journalism this disgraceful be atoned for? Possibly not. But Dolores Kennedy wishes the Tribune would try.

Kennedy recently published a book called William Heirens: His Day in Court that argues for Heirens’s innocence and human worth. The Tribune will not review it. Kennedy twice wrote Dianne Donovan, the books editor, about this. The second letter ends on this note:

“I do not know how to appeal to you, Ms. Donovan, but somewhere the concept of fair play enters into this situation. I hope you will consider giving back to Bill Heirens just a bit of what George Wright, so many years ago, took away.”

We called Donovan’s office and wound up having a long conversation with her assistant, Larry Kart. “Very seldom do we deal with books like that,” Kart told us. “Books of this sort tend to be attempts to make stories that were news news again. To the degree their efforts succeed in making news, the news columns are where the Tribune’s response belongs.”

So we called Ann Marie Lipinski, the new metro editor. She told us she’d been on her new job all of five hours and hadn’t given William Heirens a moment’s thought. We said she ought to, and added that there was a time when city editors would have jumped on a story like this. Is that some sort of insult? she wondered.

Possibly. The first prisoner in Illinois history to earn a college degree behind bars, Heirens has become the symbol of total rehabilitation as well as of unspeakable savagery. Nothing mars his impeccable prison record but his refusal to repent for something he insists he never did.

What if he really is innocent! As the hacks who crucified Heirens in 1946 would have told Lipinski, it’s a hell of a yarn.

The Tribune, to be fair, did its duty two years ago, when Paul Galloway wrote an extremely long and sympathetic piece in Tempo that did not spare his own newspaper. Heirens was back in the news in April when he was again denied parole, but save for a brief mention in the law column, the Tribune has ignored Kennedy’s book.

Larry Kart called back with an analogy he wanted to share. “If the magnitude of the crime is the determining factor, there’s no book about the Holocaust that doesn’t deserve attention,” Kart told us. “Sometime this year or late last year, I got a call from a fellow in New York who said he was a Holocaust survivor.”

The man had written a book and Kart told him to send it in. But there have been any number of personal accounts of the Holocaust, and Kart feared that nothing would make this one exceptional. And nothing did.

A few months later the man called back and asked when the review would appear. Glumly, Kart broke the news–and the man began to weep.

“You mean,” he said, “my life means nothing.”

Kart felt awful. “But,” he says, “I don’t think I was wrong professionally.”

We still think he’s wrong about William Heirens. If we’d written his review it would not have been a rave. We’d have praised Kennedy for her research and compassion, but wished for a more penetrating analysis of Heirens’s prosecution. Without doubt he was railroaded; without doubt he has lived irreproachably since. But Kennedy’s powers of investigation weren’t enough to convince us that Heirens didn’t do it.

We’d have added that any newspaper looking for a wrong to right should give William Heirens a long look. Kart is certainly correct about a mere review not being the most appropriate response. At the moment, the Parole for Heirens Committee, which Kennedy founded, is after the Chicago Police Department to turn over an old set of fingerprints that might either prove Heirens’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or discredit the only significant physical evidence there was against him.

A paper with a conscience could step in here and make itself useful.

…Who Cares?

On May, 1, 1990, the judge presiding over the trial of David and Cynthia Dowaliby acquitted Cynthia of the 1988 murder of her seven-year-old daughter Jaclyn. Two days later, a jury convicted her husband David of that crime. The extra evidence against Jaclyn’s father was a witness, Everett Mann, who said that the night Jaclyn disappeared he’d seen someone with a nose like David Dowaliby’s driving from the parking lot of an apartment complex alongside the woods in which her body was later discovered.

Investigative reporter Rob Warden and Medill professor David Protess think the conviction was outrageous. They have stepped in to help the Dowalibys and to write a book about the case. In April they produced a handyman who lived and worked in the apartment complex and whose own large nose resembles David Dowaliby’s. Mann has now signed a statement declaring that if the police had included a picture of the handyman, Roy Padecky, in the array of photographs from which he chose Dowaliby as the person he’d seen that night, he’d have chosen Padecky instead.

What’s more, Padecky told Warden and Protess that he frequently used that parking lot, coming and going at all hours of the day and night.

The Padecky story broke last month on Channel Five, which had helped Warden and Protess develop it. Channel Seven did a follow-up. But there was nothing at all in the newspapers. And not for lack of trying by Rob Warden.

Warden talked to both Dick Ciccone, the managing editor of the Tribune, and Larry Green, an old friend who’s a deputy managing editor of the Sun-Times. He offered both of them a story that he and Protess would write about Padecky. Both turned him down.

“I just didn’t think it was that newsworthy,” Ciccone told us. “What they were looking for, frankly, was display. But it was not a front-page story in my opinion.”

Ciccone’s other problem was Warden and Protess’s involvement with Channel Five. “I think in fairness,” Ciccone told us, “if I’m going to do anything with a competitor of WGN, I’ve got to feel it’s a worthwhile and unique thing I’m going to do.”

Larry Green told Warden that the Sun-Times has decided to cover the Dowaliby case only as it develops in court–an oddly passive position for a newspaper. But something about Warden’s proposition that bothered Green would have bothered us too. Warden and Protess aren’t disinterested reporters. As authors and allies, they now have a personal and financial stake in the Dowalibys’ fortunes.

Warden tells us he made it clear that if the papers had wanted to assign their own reporters to the story, he and Protess would have been happy to cooperate.

“I’m not sure I understood the conversation that way,” Green said.

At any rate, both papers backed off. Something about the idea of men in prison for murders they may not have committed doesn’t tantalize newspapers these days.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.