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Psychologist says Degorski would adjust to prison
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Mark Cunningham a clinical and forensic psychologist testified for the defense that James Degorski is likely to have a positive adjustment to a life in prison, during the penalty phase of the James Degorski trial Wednesday.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/7/2009 2:22 PM | Updated: 10/7/2009 6:06 PM

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James Degorski may have committed a violent act outside of jail, but that doesn't mean he will commit violent acts in prison, said a forensic and clinical psychologist testifying on behalf of the defense Wednesday in Chicago.

Psychologist Mark Cunningham has spent more than a decade researching violence in prison and the behavior of capital offender. His evaluation of Degorski consisted of three meetings with the defendant, a review of Degorski's record and interviews with more than 20 Cook County Jail corrections officers. That combined with national statistics led Cunningham to conclude that it is unlikely Degorski would commit a serious violent act in prison if he were sentenced to life in prison without parole, he said.

"He is very likely to have a positive adjustment to a life term in prison," said Cunningham.

Cunningham's testimony came on the third day of the defense's mitigation case as Degorski's attorneys try to convince the jury to spare the life of the man convicted last week of capital murder in the 1993 slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

Among the factors predicting whether an inmate will behave violently in prison are age, education, connection to family, employment history and appraisals from corrections officers, Cunningham said. Of these, age is one of the most powerful predictors, Cunningham said, because older inmates are less likely to act out than younger ones. At 37, Degorski falls in to the former category.

A high school graduate who has been consistently employed most of his life (beginning at age 12 with a stint delivering newspapers), Degorski fits the profile of a nonviolent inmate, despite his conviction for multiple murders, Cunningham said.

He has not committed any known violent acts in the seven years between the murders and his arrest; his record during his seven years at Cook County Jail awaiting trial remains mostly unblemished (except for two infractions); and correctional officers have described him as cooperative and compliant, Cunningham said. All of which points to Degorski serving out a life sentence without a major incident, he said.

Violent behavior in the outside world doesn't predict violent behavior in prison, Cunningham said. Rather violent behavior in the prison predicts violent behavior in prison. To that end, Cook County correction officers testified this week that Degorski has been a model prisoner.

Cunningham refuted defense attorney Preston Jones' suggestion that Degorski's good behavior in jail may have resulted from his desire to create a positive impression before his trial.

"Seven years is a long time to put on an act," Cunningham said.

National studies show that convicted murderers - even multiple murderers - tend to act out less frequently than inmates convicted of lesser crimes, Cunningham said. He added that inmates serving life are about half as likely to be involved in violent offenses as other inmates.

In general, serious offenses committed by prisoners against other prisoners or against corrections officers happen far less frequently than TV and film would have you believe, Cunningham said.

Defense attorney Jones raised the common perception that a lifer might act out because he has nothing to lose, but Cunningham cited studies which found long-term inmates have an incentive to behave because to do otherwise would deprive them of privileges making their incarceration even more difficult.

Jones boldly asked Cunningham if it wouldn't be cheaper to execute capital murderers.

No, said Cunningham. Death row inmates are housed separately, which increases the cost to taxpayers, as do their post-conviction appeals.

Michele Mogilinski, whose family lived next door to the Degorski family in Hoffman Estates, also testified Tuesday, saying that when she was a child, Degorski watched over her and his younger sister as they waited for the school bus.

"It made me feel safe," said Mogilinski who described her former neighbor as caring, helpful, responsible and great with kids.

Building rapport with children doesn't necessarily come easy, said Mogilinski who's pursuing a master's degree in education at Roosevelt University.

"Being great with kids is not something you can go to school for and learn," she said.

Richard Beacham, who dated one of Degorski's sisters for about one year during the early 1990s, testified that she told him her father sexually abused her from the time she was four until she was 18, bolstering the defense's claim that the Degorski household was dysfunctional, plagued by physical and sexual abuse and chemical dependency and presided over by a father who had been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and who was removed from the home after threatening his family with a gun.

Wednesday's proceedings concluded with testimony from Michele Mogilinski's older sister Jessica. Jessica Mogilinski said she thought of Degorski as an older brother and that when she and her brother went to the home, the then-teenage Degorski welcomed them with open arms.

Jessica Mogilinski testified that she never observed Degorski behave violently toward then-girlfriend Anne Lockett (now England) or toward the myriad pets belonging to his younger sister. She recalled him replacing a bird's nest that had fallen out of a tree.

Jessica Mogilinski said her father has remained in contact with Degorski since his arrest and that Degorski occasionally asks about the family.

"He took care of us and watched over us and I'd like to repay that to him," Mogilinski said.

Testimony continues Thursday in Chicago.