The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Heirens, the notorious “Lipstick Killer” who in 1946 confessed to three horrific
murders in Chicago and then spent the rest of his life — more than 65 years — in
prison despite questions about his guilt, was found dead on Monday in the Dixon
Correctional Center in Dixon, Ill. He was 83.
He was pronounced dead at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center,
where an autopsy was to be performed, the Cook County medical examiner’s office
said. Mr. Heirens was known to have had diabetes.
Mr. Heirens’ notoriety stemmed from the separate killings of two women,
Josephine Ross and Frances Brown, in 1945. At the scene of the second murder,
that of Miss Brown, someone had used lipstick to scrawl on a wall: “For heaven’s
sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”
The reports of a “lipstick killer” terrified Chicago as the press took note of
other unsolved murders of women. Then, about two weeks after the Brown murder,
on Jan. 7, 1946, a 6-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing
from her bedroom at her North Side home. A ladder was found outside the window.
The police later determined that the killer had strangled her and taken the body
to the basement of a nearby building, where it was dismembered. Her head was
found in a sewer; other body parts were found scattered about the neighborhood.
The newspapers called the killing the crime of the century, and though the
police questioned a parade of suspects, there was no arrest.
Almost six months later, Mr. Heirens (pronounced HIGH-rens), a 17-year-old
student at the University of Chicago, was apprehended at the scene of a burglary
in the girl’s neighborhood. The police charged him with the murder after
determining that his fingerprints were on a $20,000 ransom note that had been
left behind at her home.
While he was in custody, The Chicago Tribune, citing what it called
“unimpeachable sources,” reported that Mr. Heirens had confessed to the Degnan
murder. Four other Chicago newspapers published similar articles, basing them on
The Tribune’s account. The outcry against him mounted.
Mr. Heirens, who said he was beaten and given “truth serum” in jail, disputed
the newspaper accounts, saying he was about to sign a confession in exchange for
one life term but rebelled at “being forced to lie to save myself.” He was then
charged with the Brown and Ross murders, saying they had incriminating physical
evidence against him, including crime-scene fingerprints and a handwriting
analysis. Offered three consecutive life terms in exchange for a guilty plea, he
accepted, on the advice of his lawyers. Later he said he had done so only to
avoid a death sentence if he had gone to trial.
“I confessed to live,” he said.
When he did confess, his memory seemed ragged. Time after time during the plea
bargaining, prosecutors brought up details from The Tribune article, which he
then incorporated into his testimony. Mr. Heirens recanted his confession soon
afterward and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life while being
denied parole or clemency numerous times. He questioned the validity of the
fingerprints and other evidence, as have public interest lawyers who supported
In one clemency petition in 2002, his lawyers from the Northwestern University
Center on Wrongful Convictions alleged more “prosecutorial misconduct,
incompetent defense counsel, unprecedented prejudicial pretrial publicity, junk
science, probably false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identification.” But
others could not ignore his detailed admissions of guilt, even if he had
retracted them. “He is the yardstick by which all evil is judged,” Thomas Epach,
a Chicago police official, said at the 2002 clemency hearing.
Suzanne Degnan’s family fought all efforts to release him. Betty Finn, Suzanne’s
older sister, said at the 2002 hearing, “Think of the worse nightmare that you
cannot put out of your mind, you’re not allowed to put out of your mind.”
William George Heirens was born on Nov. 15, 1928, in Evanston, Ill. His father’s
flower business failed, and the family teetered on the edge of poverty. In
interviews, William said that his parents had fought frequently and that he had
burglarized houses to relieve the tension he felt at home. He did not try to
sell the things he stole, he said.
He was placed in two Roman Catholic youth detention centers. At the second, he
proved to be an excellent student, skipping his senior year of high school. He
was admitted to the University of Chicago at 16, with plans to major in
engineering. In interviews, Mr. Heirens said his mother had led him to believe
that sex was dirty. When he kissed a girl, he said, he would burst into tears
and vomit. He said one reason he broke into houses was to play with women’s
In the burglary in which he was arrested, the police testified that he had aimed
a gun at an officer and twice pulled the trigger, but that the weapon misfired.
He was additionally convicted of assault with the intention of killing a police
After Mr. Heirens went to jail, his parents and brother changed their names to
Hill. He left no known survivors.
While serving one of the nation’s longest prison terms, Mr. Heirens became the
first prisoner in Illinois to earn a degree from a four-year college. He also
managed the prison garden factory and set up several education programs. In
recent years, his diabetes damaged his eyesight, and he used a wheelchair. He
told The New York Times in 2002 that he had learned that prison friendships were
“Most of them, you hear for a little while, and then they kind of fade out,” he
said. “Usually when they get out, they try to forget they were ever in.”
ALBANY — New York’s system of juvenile prisons is broken, with young people
battling mental illness or addiction held alongside violent offenders in abysmal
facilities where they receive little counseling, can be physically abused and
rarely get even a basic education, according to a report by a state panel.
The problems are so acute that the state agency overseeing the prisons has asked
New York’s Family Court judges not to send youths to any of them unless they are
a significant risk to public safety, recommending alternatives, like therapeutic
“New York State’s current approach fails the young people who are drawn into the
system, the public whose safety it is intended to protect, and the principles of
good governance that demand effective use of scarce state resources,” said the
confidential draft report, which was obtained by The New York Times.
The report, prepared by a task force appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson and led
by Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, comes
three months after a federal investigation found that excessive force was
routinely used at four prisons, resulting in injuries as severe as broken bones
and shattered teeth.
The situation was so serious the Department of Justice, which made the
investigation, threatened to take over the system.
But according to the task force, the problems uncovered at the four prisons are
endemic to the entire system, which houses about 900 young people at 28
facilities around the state.
While some prisons for violent and dangerous offenders should be preserved, the
report calls for most to be replaced with a system of smaller centers closer to
the communities where most of the families of the youths in custody live.
The task force was convened in 2008 after years of complaints about the prisons,
punctuated by the death in 2006 of an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old boy at
one center after two workers pinned him to the ground. The task force’s
recommendations are likely to help shape the state’s response to the federal
“I was not proud of my state when I saw some of these facilities,” Mr. Travis
said in an interview on Friday. “New York is no longer the leader it once was in
the juvenile justice field.”
New York’s juvenile prisons are both extremely expensive and extraordinarily
ineffective, according to the report, which will be given to Mr. Paterson on
Monday. The state spends roughly $210,000 per youth annually, but three-quarters
of those released from detention are arrested again within three years. And
though the median age of those admitted to juvenile facilities is almost 16,
one-third of those held read at a third-grade level.
The prisons are meant to house youths considered dangerous to themselves or
others, but there is no standardized statewide system for assessing such risks,
the report found.
In 2007, more than half of the youths who entered detention centers were sent
there for the equivalent of misdemeanor offenses, in many cases theft, drug
possession or even truancy. More than 80 percent were black or Latino, even
though blacks and Latinos make up less than half the state’s total youth
population — a racial disparity that has never been explained, the report said.
Many of those detained have addictions or psychological illnesses for which less
restrictive treatment programs were not available. Three-quarters of children
entering the juvenile justice system have drug or alcohol problems, more than
half have had a diagnosis of mental health problems and one-third have
Yet there are only 55 psychologists and clinical social workers assigned to the
prisons, according to the task force. And none of the facilities employ
psychiatrists, who have the authority to prescribe the drugs many mentally ill
While 76 percent of youths in custody are from the New York City area, nearly
all the prisons are upstate, and the youths’ relatives, many of them poor,
cannot afford frequent visits, cutting them off from support networks.
“These institutions are often sorely underresourced, and some fail to keep their
young people safe and secure, let alone meet their myriad service and treatment
needs,” according to the report, which was based on interviews with workers and
youths in custody, visits to prisons and advice from experts. “In some
facilities, youth are subjected to shocking violence and abuse.”
Even before the task force’s report is released, the Paterson administration is
moving to reduce the number of youths held in juvenile prisons.
Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services,
the agency that oversees the juvenile justice system, has recommended that
judges find alternative placements for most young offenders, according to an
internal memorandum issued Oct. 28 by the state’s deputy chief administrative
Ms. Carrión also advised court officials that New York would not contest the
Justice Department findings, according to the memo, and that officials were
negotiating a settlement agreement to remedy the system.
Peter E. Kauffmann, a spokesman for Mr. Paterson, said the governor “looks
forward to receiving the recommendations of the task force as we continue our
efforts to transform the state’s juvenile justice system from a
correctional-punitive model to a therapeutic model.”
The report contends that smaller facilities would place less strain on workers,
helping reduce the use of physical force, and would be better able to tailor
New York is not unique in using its juvenile prisons to house mentally ill
teenagers, particularly as many states confront huge budget shortfalls that have
resulted in significant cuts to mental health programs. Still, some states are
trying to shift to smaller, community-based programs.
The report by New York’s task force does not say how much money would be needed
to overhaul the system, but as Mr. Paterson and state lawmakers try to close a
$3.2 billion deficit, cost could become a major hurdle.
Ms. Carrión has faced resistance from some prison workers, who accuse her of
making them scapegoats for the system’s problems and minimizing the dangerous
conditions they face. State records show a significant spike in on-the-job
injuries, for which some workers blame Ms. Carrión’s efforts to limit the use of
“We embrace the idea of moving towards a more therapeutic model of care, but you
can’t do that without more training and more staff,” said Stephen A. Madarasz, a
spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, the union that represents
prison workers. “You’re not dealing with wayward youth. In the more secure
facilities, you’re dealing with individuals who have been involved in pretty
Advocates have credited Ms. Carrión, who was appointed in 2007 by former Gov.
Eliot Spitzer, with instituting significant reforms, including installing
cameras in some of the more troubled prisons and providing more counseling.
But the state has a long way to go, many advocates say.
“Even the kids that are not considered dangerous are shackled when they are
being transferred from their homes to the centers upstate — hands and feet,
sometimes even belly chains,” said Clara Hemphill, a researcher and author of a
report on the state’s youth prisons published in October by the Center for New
York City Affairs at the New School.
“It really is barbaric,” she added, “the way they treat these kids.”
in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised
release at the end of last year, the Department of Justice reported yesterday.
An estimated 2.38 million people were incarcerated in state and federal
facilities, an increase of 2.8 percent over 2005, while a record 5 million
people were on parole or probation, an increase of 1.8 percent. Immigration
detention facilities had the greatest growth rate last year. The number of
people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities grew 43
percent, to 14,482 from 10,104.
The data reflect deep racial disparities in the nation’s correctional
institutions, with a record 905,600 African-American inmates in prisons and
state and local jails. In several states, incarceration rates for blacks were
more than 10 times the rate of whites. In Iowa, for example, blacks were
imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the
data by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
But the report concludes that nationally the percentage of black men in state
and federal prison populations in 2006 fell to 38 percent, from 43 percent in
2000. The rates also declined for black women, while rates for white women
Over all, the number of women in state and federal prisons, 112,498, was at a
record high. The female jail and prison population has grown at double the rate
for men since 1980; in 2006 it increased 4.5 percent, its fastest clip in five
The report suggests that state prison capacity has expanded at roughly the same
rate as the prison population, with prisons operating at 98 percent to 114
percent of capacity, a slight improvement over 2005.
Still, many prison systems are accommodating record numbers of inmates by using
facilities that were never meant to provide bed space. Arizona has for years
held inmates in tent encampments on prison grounds. Hundreds of California
prisoners sleep in three-tier bunk beds in gymnasiums or day rooms. Prisons
throughout the nation have made meeting rooms for educational and treatment
programs into cell space.
Private prisons have also been a growing option for crowded corrections
departments. And local jails contracted with various government agencies to hold
77,987 more state and federal inmates last year.