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Degorski trial winding down without jury hearing 'confession' tape
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


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Published: 9/27/2009 12:01 AM

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When testimony concludes this week in James Degorski's capital murder trial, it will come about 5 minutes sooner than expected.

With the defense set to wrap up its rebuttal Tuesday and jury deliberations imminent, prosecutors' case against Degorski in the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant murders will not include a 4½ -minute videotaped statement in which they say the former Hoffman Estates resident confessed to the murders.

The prosecution fought hard to get permission to introduce the May 2002 videotape, but ultimately decided against showing it as they tried to convince the jury that Degorski took part in the murders of seven people at a Palatine restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

On Tuesday, the defense may call one more rebuttal witness, after which the testimony portion of the trial's guilt-innocence phase will be over.

After four weeks of testimony, the case against Degorski remains largely circumstantial. No physical evidence connects him to the murders. And the gun authorities say he and his co-defendant Juan Luna used has never been found.

In his opening statement, Assistant State's Attorney Lou Longhitano alluded to Degorski's statement, saying "you are going to hear his confession." But the state never played the recording, which had been the subject of legal battles that extended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2007, Judge Vincent M. Gaughan barred prosecutors from playing the Degorski tape, saying that while police read Degorski his rights, they should have repeated those rights before they began videotaping him. An appellate court overruled Gaughan. In 2008, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the defense's petition last December.

On the tape former Assistant State's Attorney Michael McHale said: "And that during the robbery, you shot two people in the cooler and Juan shot the other five and stabbed the lady. Money was taken and was split up between you later. Is that correct?"

"Right," Degorski responded. He then refused to answer more questions saying, "It'll be easier to just say it one time or say it in court. I've already said it, it's not like I have anything to hide."

Experts speculated not playing the statement may have been a tactical decision, given the potential that questions from the defense about whether Degorski's rights were violated may have outweighed its benefits. Prosecutors were barred from playing a 45-minute videotaped confession from Degorski's co-defendant Juan Luna, in which he also implicates Degorski. Luna was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. If convicted, Degorski could face the death penalty.

The defense's first witness was James Bell, who from 1995 to 2000 headed up the task force investigating the murders. For 21/2 years, Bell concentrated on a single suspect who claimed he had a "vision" of the murders. Bell called the man's statement a "red flag" but pursued him anyway, over the objections of now Palatine Police Chief John Koziol and Cmdr. William King, both of whom were involved in the investigation from the beginning. Bell said the suspect, Jonathon Simonek, changed his story a half dozen times.

Testimony from Simonek and former Brown's employee Casey Haefs (formerly Casey Sander), another person wrongly accused, was aimed at bolstering the defense's claim that overzealous police coerced innocent people to make false confessions, including Degorski.

Simonek said he confessed on videotape after succumbing to the pressure. "They (the police) were constantly hounding me. They wouldn't leave me alone," said Simonek, who admitted making up details about the crime. "When I said stuff that was wrong, they would correct me," he said. The defense has suggested police fed information to suspects, including Degorski.

Simonek testified that he got some details about the crime from newspapers. Someone from the task force did leak details to the press, Koziol testified.

Simonek insisted he had nothing to do with the killings. No physical evidence linked him or Haefs to the crime. Neither was charged.

Haefs, who was scheduled to work Jan. 8 but traded shifts with victim Rico Solis, said police pursued her after she told them about her nightmare, in which she was among the victims. She said they became aggressive, questioning her some two dozen times over six years.

Haefs said she broke during an eight-hour interrogation on April 28, 1999, when she said police pressured her into a false confession in which she said she was at the restaurant when her boyfriend opened fire.

"It was terrible," said the 33-year-old Crystal Lake medical assistant. "They're screaming at you. They're in your face. They get you to question yourself. I've never experienced anything like that and hope never to again. Words can't ever describe what it was like."

The defense also focused on law enforcement's failure to recover the murder weapon, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. King said Degorski told him they threw the gun in the Fox River at the Carpentersville Dam. In 2002, an aquatic recovery unit logged more than 300 hours searching, but did not find the gun. A civil engineer testified that water alone would not move or dislodge the 1.4-lb. weapon from the river bed, had it settled there. The prosecution responded by pointing out that the gun could have been moved by other means.

Forensic scientist Charles Principe testified that he helped process the crime scene but that no one alerted him to bloody shoe impressions outside the freezer where five victims were found, so he did not properly photograph the footprints. The defense suggested the footprints showed police mishandled the scene and suggested they may have been left by the real suspect. The prosecution said the footprints were left by the sheriff's officer who removed the victims. Photographs of the area before the victims' removal show a clean floor, sans footprints. Photographs taken after several victims were removed showed visible foot impressions.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Tuesday in Chicago, with jury deliberations to follow.