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Victims' families wait as lawyers discuss Degorski case
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

James Degorski


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Published: 10/8/2009 5:42 PM | Updated: 10/14/2009 2:18 PM

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Outside Courtroom 500 on Thursday, family members of James Degorski's seven victims, Palatine police officers, spectators and reporters waited for testimony to resume Thursday in the sentencing phase of Degorski's capital murder trial.

Inside the courtroom and away from the presence of the jury and the press, prosecutors and defense attorneys held a closed-door session with Cook County Judge Vincent M. Gaughan. The subject of that session remains a mystery thanks to a court-imposed gag order preventing attorneys from discussing the case.

Spectators and the press were admitted to the courtroom about noon on Thursday, at which time Gaughan dismissed the jury until next week. The jury convicted Degorski of the 1993 slayings of workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta. Having found him eligible for the death penalty, the jury must now consider whether he lives or dies. Degorski's co-defendant Juan Luna was convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.

After the jury left, Samuel Fifer, an attorney for the Chicago Tribune, expressed to the court the newspaper's concern about "the possibility that a witness would be testifying in a closed courtroom."

The proceeding, which began late Wednesday and is expected to continue Friday, has been characterized as a sidebar between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Such sidebars may include witness testimony. However, it is not clear if this one included witness testimony.

Gaughan cited fairness as a reason for the closed proceedings. Addressing the matters in open court could compromise the ability of each side to get a fair trial, he said. Gaughan assured Fifer that transcripts of the sidebar in question would be available to the public.

"Nobody disputes the right of the press to have the information, nor the right of the public to have their evidence," said Gaughan, "but it's a matter of when."

Chicago area courts have closed proceedings to the press and public from time to time. Gaughan imposed similar restrictions during Luna's 2007 trial and R. Kelly's 2008 child molestation trial. DuPage County Judge George Bakalis has sealed from public view the case file of Brian Dugan, who pleaded guilty in July to the 1983 abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Bakalis also imposed a gag order on attorneys and has held lengthy pretrial hearings behind closed doors. Dugan already been sentenced to life in prison for the 1985 abduction, rape and murder of seven-year-old Melissa Ackerman from Somonauk and the 1984 abduction, rape and murder of Geneva nurse Donna Schnorr, 27. A jury found Dugan eligible for the death penalty Wednesday. His sentencing hearing is currently under way in Wheaton.

Testimony in Degorski's trial is scheduled to resume at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14 in Chicago.