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October 27, 2009

Infamous "Lipstick Killer" case provides historical perspective on juve sentencing debate

I noticed this interesting recent piece on CNN headlined "'Lipstick Killer' behind bars since 1946."  The article is fascinating for various reasons, and here are a few highlights:

William Heirens, the "Lipstick Killer," is believed to be the longest-serving inmate in the United States. He turns 81 on November 15.  Diabetes has ravaged his body, but his mind is sharp.

"Bill's never allowed himself to be institutionalized," said Dolores Kennedy, his long-time friend and advocate. "He's kept himself focused on the positives." The days are spent mostly watching television and reading magazines.  Using a wheelchair and sharing a cell with a roommate in the health unit of Dixon Correctional Center, he still yearns for a chance at freedom.  It is something he has not tasted since 1946.

Heirens has been locked behind bars and walls for 63 years, making inmate C06103 the longest-serving prisoner in Illinois history, state officials say.  According to Steven Drizin, the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, Heirens "has served longer than anyone in the U.S. that I can find."

He was put away a year after the end of World War II. It is a dubious record, but fitting for the man dubbed the Lipstick Killer, whose crime spree remains among the most infamous in the history of Chicago...  "Pray for my release," he wrote in a letter dated October 11. "There is no reason to keep this man behind bars," said Drizin. "He meets all the criteria for parole."

While Drizin, who has represented Heirens since 2001, and others passionately plead for his release and prepare to re-petition the state parole board that has consistently refused to free Heirens, others are convinced he is a manipulative murderer.  "He was the bogeyman," said Betty Finn of the man convicted of strangling her sister.  "I don't think you need to feel sorry for him. He chose his life and he chose his actions."...

He pleaded guilty to three counts of murder.  In exchange for the plea, Heirens was spared the death penalty and given three consecutive life sentences.

Heirens has distinguished himself in prison.  He was the first inmate in Illinois to receive a college degree . "He helped redesign the library system in the department of corrections," said Drizin, who also commended Heirens for becoming a "first-rate jailhouse lawyer."   Drizin said Heirens has been eligible for parole nearly every year since the 1970s. 

There are so many notable elements to this interesting story, ranging from claims that Heirens was tortured into a confession back in 1946 to the fact that he was able to avoid the death penalty by virtue of pleading guilty.  It is also interesting and notable that Heirens was only 17 at the time of his crimes; the Supreme Court's consideration of Eighth Amendment standards for juve sentencing in the upcoming Graham and Sullivan cases could arguably have some relevance to the "Lipstick Killer."  Then again, the issue in Graham and Sullivan concerns sentences of life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes, whereas the "Lipstick Killer" is serving three life sentences with the possibility of parole for homicides.

October 27, 2009 at 07:00 PM | Permalink


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I am not familiar with the details of his multiple murders, but they must have been quite something for him to have been denied parole continuously for 63 years.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 27, 2009 7:39:53 PM

Bill. Or Vengeance.

Anyway, I don't often disagree with victims but in this case I will.

"He chose his life and he chose his actions." That is simply not factually true. He indeed may have chosen his actions but it is we as a society that have chosen his life. We chose to put him behind bars. Whether that is justified or not is not the point. We chose it. He agreed to it but we chose it. Let's be clear about that.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 27, 2009 8:35:07 PM

Prof. Berman is arguing, by this story, that LWOP for juvenile murderers is actually a wonderful, growthful, edifying experience. The murderer did great in prison. To expel him now would be devastating to the prisoner. Many more LWOP sentences are needed for juvenile murderers so they may thrive as this one did.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 27, 2009 8:35:53 PM

Maybe he thrived, SC, ONLY because he had the possibility of parole. Without that possibility, who knows.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 27, 2009 9:14:18 PM

Prof. Berman: You should do more trial advocacy. You are good at finding and squeezing through the tiniest weasel hole to pull out an element of doubt.

Great story. Not a specialist as a criminal, but majored in electrical engineering at U of Chicago.


From a common sense point of view, do not inject prisoners with sedatives. It removes all their fears, making them oblivious to your threats, and allowing them to remain quiet. Here is the real truth serum if any of you is interrogating someone in the future.


You will not be able to shut the criminal up.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 27, 2009 10:51:18 PM

"There is no reason to keep this man behind bars," said Drizin. "He meets all the criteria for parole."

Sure he should be set free. As long as you can ignore the fact he murdered three people including a six year old girl.
People like him is why we have LWOP sentences. The only way justice can be done is if he dies in prison.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 28, 2009 10:03:41 AM

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