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Cook public defender wants death penalty removed in 60 cases
By Rob Olmstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/3/2009 11:42 AM | Updated: 6/3/2009 11:51 AM

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The Cook County Public Defender's office is filing, today and in the coming days, motions in to remove the death penalty as an option in about 60 cases because the office is out of money to pay expert witnesses in those cases.

The cases include some from the Northwest suburbs, but which exact cases were not immediately available.

"In order to give (death penalty defendants adequate) representation, we need to have adequate funding," said Public Defender Abishi Cunningham.

Illinois gives Cook County $1.75 million a year to pay for expert witnesses in an estimated 122 death cases, said Cunningham. That pays for forensic experts, psychological experts or other key witnesses needed to defend capital punishment cases.

The legislature had approved increasing that to $2.25 million for 2009, but former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in a line-item veto, reduced it back down to the previous year's $1.75 million, Abishi said. Abishi and Julie Harmon, Cook County's capital case coordinator, argue that amount is insufficient.

So the office is asking judges to remove the death penalty as an option or to appoint private attorneys to the 60 cases, which would mean the judge in the case would order the state to pay both attorneys fees and the costs that include expert witnesses.

One key case from the suburbs, the trial of Jim Degorski, the man accused of killing seven workers at a Brown's Chicken & Pasta Restaurant in Palatine in 1993, is not among the cases in which public defenders are seeking to remove the death penalty. However, that case, scheduled to begin in August after years of delays, is still being evaluated for such a motion, Cunningham said.