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Degorski eligible for death penalty in Brown's Chicken murders
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski

 

Patricia Degorski leaves the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for her son James Degorski, who was found guilty on Tuesday of the Palatine Brown's Chicken mass murder Jan. 8, 1993.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Family members of victims including Jennifer Shilling, front left, who is the daughter of victim Lynn Ehlenfledt, leaves the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for James Degorski, who was found guilty Tuesday.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Family member of victims including Diane Clayton, mother of victim Marcus Nellsen, in wheelchair leave the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for James Degorski, who was found guilty Tuesday.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Members of the family of murder victim Guadalupe Maldonado leave the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for James Degorski, who was found guilty Tuesday.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Patricia Degorski leaves the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for her son James Degorski, who was found guilty on Tuesday of the Palatine Brown's Chicken mass murder.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Diane Clayton, mother of victim Marcus Nellsen, leaves the courtroom during a break in the death penalty eligibility hearing on Wednesday for James Degorski, who was found guilty on Tuesday.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/30/2009 2:05 PM | Updated: 10/1/2009 9:08 AM

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The jury that convicted James Degorski of seven counts of first degree murder in the 1993 slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta found him eligible for the death penalty on Wednesday.

The verdict followed a 90-minute deliberation. It marks the beginning of the end for the nearly five-week trial, which moves to the sentencing phase Thursday in Chicago.

The six-man, six-woman jury found Degorski eligible for death on each statutory provision prosecutors presented. Jurors agreed that Degorski was 18 or older at the time of the crimes. Born on Aug. 20, 1972, he was 20 at the time of the murders.

The jury also agreed with each of the following propositions: that he committed two or more murders; that those murders were committed in the course of another felony - in this case armed robbery; and that the murders were carried out in a cold and calculating manner pursuant to a plan or scheme.

Degorski showed no emotion as the court clerk read the verdict. His family sat solemnly, some with eyes downcast, the tension rolling off them in waves.

During the eligibility hearing Wednesday morning, prosecutors drew a vivid portrait of the calculating nature of the crime. They repeated Degorski's admission that he and co-defendant Juan Luna wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints and that Degorski mopped up after the killings. They recalled Degorski's statement that they wore old clothes and shoes which they later discarded, and that they chose Brown's because Luna had worked there and knew the layout.

Prosecutors also reminded jurors that the killers showed up armed with a knife, a gun and pockets full of bullets supplied by Degorski, who they say reloaded his gun three times. Prosecutors also recounted testimony from high school friend Eileen Bakalla, who helped the men get away. Lastly, they emphasized that Degorski did not intend to leave any witnesses.

"They had the intent that nobody was going to walk out of there alive," said assistant state's attorney Lou Longhitano.

"This guy's not just cold, he's subzero," Longhitano said.

Assistant Public Defender Michael Mayfield voiced the defense's reactions to Tuesday's guilty verdict and reminded the jury that the law presumes Degorski not eligible for the death penalty.

"We are disheartened but not discouraged," said Mayfield. "As we enter this second phase, we respect your verdict and the way you've comported yourself throughout this trial."

Assistant state's attorney Tisa Morris effectively summarized the prosecution's argument quoting the adage: if you fail to plan you plan to fail.

Degorski's actions confirm "that he did not plan to fail," Morris said.

Prosecutors will present their arguments and testimony supporting death as the appropriate sentence on Thursday. The defense will follow, presenting its arguments supporting a sentence of life in prison without parole.