“It’s a bad thing on the reputation of Illinois that they lock people up forever,” William Heirens told the Chicago Tribune. He has served more than six decades in prison — longer than any other inmate in Illinois history — for one of the most shocking murder sprees in Chicago history. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board is to rule today on another parole bid by Heirens.
The case raises fundamental questions about justice and punishment, rehabilitation and retribution. He has spent a virtual lifetime, from age 17 to 78, as a model prisoner. He was the first Illinois inmate to earn a college degree behind bars. The murder victims’ relatives, who have long fought to keep him behind bars, say they live in fear of the day he might be released. “There can be no sense of security if he gets out,” said James Degnan, who was born after his sister Suzanne died at the hands of Heirens. Cook County prosecutors argued this spring that his crimes were too heinous to be forgiven. Heirens pleaded guilty in 1946 to killing two women in their homes and strangling 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan, whose body was dismembered and disposed of in city sewers. “It’s a problem that’s been with us forever,” said law Prof. Andrew Leipold of the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You want to punish for what’s been done. You also hope to rehabilitate. You want to send a deterrent message.  There’s no agreed measure of what’s the proper balance.”