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Second Brown's Chicken trial more circumstantial than first
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

James E. Degorski


James Degorski in 1990


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Published: 8/4/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 8/4/2009 4:31 PM

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More than two years ago, after Juan Luna was convicted of the Palatine Brown's Chicken killings, relatives of the seven people slain knew their journey for justice was not yet complete.

They met Monday with Cook County prosecutors to prepare for what the families anticipate may be a more difficult road, but one they hope will take them to the end of a legal saga filled with more than 16 years of pain and loss.

Lawyers begin jury selection later this week in the trial of the second of two former Northwest suburban high school friends accused of the killings inside the restaurant Jan. 8, 1993.

James Eric Degorski, 36, may face the death penalty if convicted. His co-defendant, Luna, tried separately, is serving a life prison term after a lone juror's vote spared him from the death penalty in 2007.

Authorities linked Luna, 35, to the killings through his detailed videotaped police confession, his DNA on two nibbled chicken pieces and a partial palm print on a discarded napkin. Prosecutors lack physical evidence linking Degorski to the crime scene. Their strongest evidence is a short May 17, 2002, video in which they said Degorski admitted shooting two of the seven victims.

Cook Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan originally threw out the tape, after finding authorities failed to reread the defendant his rights before filming him, but an Illinois appellate court later overturned that decision. The video, which runs less than 5 minutes, was played for the first time publicly Sept. 20, 2007. It begins with former prosecutor Michael McHale stating Degorski previously told him the two friends had planned to rob the restaurant.

"And that during the robbery you shot two people in the cooler and Juan shot the other five and stabbed the lady," said McHale, now a judge. "Money was taken and was split up between you later. Is that correct?"

Degorski soon replied: "Right."

But after McHale read the defendant his rights, Degorski said on tape he no longer wanted to talk.

"(It'll) be easier just to say it one time or say it in court," Degorski said. "I've already said it. It's not like I have anything to hide or whatever."

The video contrasts sharply with the nearly 45-minute Luna confession in which he gave authorities a detailed account of the murders, including how he slit the throat of store owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt.

Despite the difference in evidence, a member of Luna's trial team said Degorski's lawyers face the difficulty of defending a second man in the same county in which the first was convicted.

"It'll be hard to find jurors who haven't heard of the case at this point," attorney Stephen Richards said. "They (the defense) are in a worse position because there's a lot of pretrial publicity because of Juan Luna's conviction."

Nonetheless, a similar verdict for Degorski isn't a foregone conclusion.

"This is not a conspiracy case," said Daniel Coyne, a Chicago-Kent College of Law clinical professor. "They are individually charged, and the evidence has to sustain the state's burden individually against them."

The prosecution's case against Degorski also rests largely with unrecorded hearsay testimony from police and two women, Anne Lockett and Eileen Bakalla, who said he confessed to them. Still, some of Luna's jurors said they deemed the women unreliable because both waited nearly a decade to tell police.

Jurors also will hear from a third woman, Alesia Hines, a Cook County jail paramedic who treated Degorski May 19, 2002, for a broken jaw. Hines earlier testified she asked Degorski how he could kill seven people and live with it.

"It was just for fun, a thrill," she said he remarked.

Degorski, who grew up in the Palatine area but lived in Indianapolis during his May 16, 2002, arrest, pleaded not guilty. He has spent the past seven years in jail without bond awaiting trial.

His defense team is expected to attack the prosecution's lack of forensic or physical evidence, including the murder weapons, question its witness hearsay testimony, cite police errors early in the investigation, and allege Degorski's statement was coerced. The bodies of the victims - Ehlenfeldt and her husband, Richard; and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and Rico Solis, 17 - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler.

Mary Nunez's brother Marcus was among the victims. Nunez said her mother, Diane Clayton, and other relatives will be there to ensure her brother is not forgotten. "I don't think any of us will ever really move on," said Nunez, of Schaumburg. "It'll stay with us forever."