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Juror waits 11 years for 'right thing' to be done

Says if state asks juries to decide on death penalty cases, it should follow through faster

Wednesday, July 07, 1999

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Eleven years ago this week, Kim Higgins stepped off a train in Pittsburgh, believing that she'd put behind her the hardest decision she'd ever have to make.

A day earlier, Higgins -- then a 28-year-old hairdresser from Etna -- had clasped hands, wept and prayed with 11 other people in a stuffy room on the other side of the state. Then they filed into a courtroom and told Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lynne Abraham that Gary Heidnik should die for his crimes.

As a member of the Allegheny County jury that convicted Heidnik of first-degree murder in the grisly slayings of two women, Higgins said she and her fellow jurors deeply felt the weight of the decision they were required to make about his fate.

Yet it took them less than two hours to sentence Heidnik to death, Higgins said, because of the number and horrifying nature of his crimes. So why, she wondered last night, did it take so long for Heidnik to die?

"The state of Pennsylvania asked this group of people to decide a death penalty and we did it. It's a tremendous burden and you go through a lot to decide that," Higgins said. "If [jurors] decide on the death penalty, the state should follow through. It really bothers me that it's taken all these years."

Higgins said she believed the case would be resolved quickly after the jury decided July 2, 1988, that Heidnik should be executed. As months, then years went by, Higgins said she grew increasingly frustrated with appeals and other developments that delayed Heidnik's execution.

By yesterday, Higgins was so angered by last-ditch appeals filed on Heidnik's behalf by his daughter, Maxine Davidson White of Philadelphia, that Higgins faxed letters of protest to Gov. Ridge in Harrisburg and to state corrections officials.

But when she finally got word that Heidnik was dead, she was unprepared for the jumble of emotions that washed over her and she broke into sobs.

"I'm sitting here crying, and I don't really know why. I'm not sorry for my decision, but nobody wants to see somebody else die," she said.

Heidnik, a disabled Army veteran who founded his own church, was arrested in 1987 for kidnapping, imprisoning, raping and torturing six women in the basement of his Philadelphia rowhouse.

Heidnik's surviving captives told police that he'd electrocuted Deborah Dudley by touching live wires to her chains while she stood in a water-filled pit.

Survivors also said that Sandra Lindsay, who was retarded, died while hanging by her arm from a basement rafter. Heidnik dismembered her with a saw, stewed her head in a pot and fed her flesh to the other women, the captives said.

Because the case generated so much publicity in Philadelphia, jurors for Heidnik's trial were selected from Allegheny County, then sequestered in Philadelphia. For her three weeks of service, Higgins was paid $428.

Jurors lived in hotel rooms without TVs, radios or newspapers, and were accompanied everywhere by court chaperones. Higgins said they got along well and amused themselves by reading books, playing games and allowing Higgins to cut and style their hair.

But in court, they were all business as they reviewed nauseating testimony and photographs taken in what became known as Heidnik's "House of Horrors."

"When we convicted him and again when we sentenced him, we prayed we'd do the right thing, and we believed we did."

For weeks after the trial, Higgins had nightmares about Heidnik's gruesome acts. But believing that she'd participated in a historic proceeding, she saved her juror's badge, newspaper clippings and other mementos of the trial in a scrapbook and has continued to add stories to it over the years.

"I had no opinion then on the death penalty in general. I still don't. Each case should be judged separately," she said. "But we did what the law required of us. Why did the state take so long to do its part?"

Higgins said she kept track of developments on TV and at 10 p.m., when Heidnik was scheduled to die, she offered a prayer for the man she and 11 other people decided must die for his crimes.

"I don't regret the decision. I think it's right. I did my duty."

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