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Questioning of jurors begins in Brown's case
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


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Published: 8/10/2009 1:44 PM | Updated: 8/10/2009 6:58 PM

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As the defense and the prosecution began questioning prospective jurors Monday in the case of the People of the State of Illinois v. James Degorski, Cook County Judge Vincent M. Gaughan assured them there are no correct answers.

"The best answer in the world is an honest answer," said Gaughan.

Gaughan questioned prospective jurors individually along with lead prosecutor Assistant State's Attorney Linas Kelecius and lead defense attorney Mark Levitt in the jury room while nine other potential jurors waited their turn in Courtroom 500's jury box. The total jury pool is about 150.

Degorski, 36, is charged with the 1993 slayings Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

Degorski's co-defendant Juan Luna was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.

Gaughan prefaced the questioning by explaining terms like burden of proof, reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence. He also outlined the trial's potential three phases: the first, during which jurors must decide unanimously Degorski's guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt; the eligibility phase, in which in the event of a conviction, jurors must determine beyond a reasonable doubt and unanimously if Degorski is eligible for the death penalty; and finally, if he is found eligible, the sentencing phase in which the jurors determine if death is an appropriate sentence.

Much of Monday's questioning, also known as voir dire, centered on the death penalty. Among the jurors excluded for cause Monday were five people who opposed the death penalty and indicated they would not impose it under any circumstances. Among them was a member of the anti-violence group Cease Fire who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, saying "killing is wrong in all forms."

"A government that sanctions and carries out executions sets a bad example," he said.

Several jurors indicated they had heard or read about the murders, to which Gaughan replied, "it would be the exception that someone hadn't heard about the Brown's Chicken case."

One middle-aged woman admitted she held preconceived notions about the crime which she might have trouble setting aside.

"I don't know if I could push that out of my mind," she said, but added that she could keep an open mind.

"I think I'm a fair person," she said.

"That's what we're looking for," said Gaughan.

A 19-year-old college student, who was 3 years old at the time of the slayings, said he had no preconceived notions about the case and would be willing to serve.

"It's a reason to get out of class," he said.

Several jurors were excused for medical conditions. A self-employed woman was excused after she told the court serving on the jury would cause her financial hardship. Several others were dismissed after they stated they had already made up their minds that Degorski was guilty.

Also excused for cause was a former Washington, D.C., police officer who trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and who had served his department as chief of detectives and deputy chief.

No jurors have been selected. However, three people questioned Monday return to Chicago's Criminal Courts Building Tuesday to resume the selection process. Returning prospective jurors include the college student, a stay-at-home dad who cares for his three daughters and a Vietnam War veteran who said he believes the death penalty is "justified sometimes."

Jury questioning continues Tuesday.