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Brown's killer's mom: Son endured physical, sexual abuse
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

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


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

James Degorski


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Published: 10/19/2009 3:07 PM | Updated: 10/19/2009 6:35 PM

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Thirty-seven years and two months after Patricia Degorski gave life to her oldest son James, she tried Monday to save it.

Looking drawn, her eyes downcast, Patricia Degorski testified from her wheelchair in the sentencing phase of her son's capital murder trial. Her voice rarely reached beyond a whisper.

Among the last to testify before closing arguments begin this morning, Patricia Degorski, 59, spoke first about the physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child and at the hands of a neighbor. She then described the physical and sexual abuse her ex-husband, William Degorski inflicted upon her and their five children during their 19-year marriage, which ended in 1989.

She testified about tension in their relationship, which began disintegrating during the early 1970s. That tension escalated to the point where her ex-husband threw her into walls and furniture and beat their sons with open and closed fists, she said.

Asked by lead defense attorney Mark Levitt why she didn't seek help, Patricia Degorski replied, "it was a different time. People didn't help."

Moreover, the family viewed their situation as normal, said Patricia Degorski, who admitted that she suffers from multiple personality disorder and has attempted suicide several times.

"Nobody looked at it as abnormal," she said.

She described how William Degorski planted recording devices around the house, created peepholes and used boulders to fortify the exterior against possible terrorist attacks.

She also testified about her ex-husband's peculiar behavior, such as standing armed guard in their home, his penchant for walking around the house unclothed and his insatiable sexual appetite.

In an effort to stop him from abusing her, Patricia Degorski testified that she gained weight, topping the scale at more than 300 lbs. at one point, to make herself less attractive and harder to throw around.

Patricia Degorski admitted that she disengaged from the chaos around her, retreating to her room and leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Because she believed she caused the abuse, she said she felt that isolating herself would make things easier on the children. Jim Degorski took a more active role, attempting to protect his siblings from abuse by deflect his father's attention onto himself, Patricia Degorski said.

The 40 minutes of questioning she endured made for some of the most uncomfortable moments of a trial that has been characterized by heartbreaking, gruesome and downright sordid testimony.

She testified that few of the children have contact with their father, who she claimed spied on them as they were growing up.

Asked if she and her children still fear their father, she responded "of course." Few of the children have contact with William Degorski, who tried to contact one of his children during the trial by putting notes on the child's car, Patricia Degorski said.

Throughout the trial, other people have served as a buffer between the senior Degorski, positioning themselves between him and his children and Patricia on the lone bench provided for the defendant's family.

To Levitt's inquiry whether her son Jim still has value, she replied immediately, "of course," adding that he supplies the family humor and devotion.

"He has more faith, I think, than all of us put together," she said.

George DeTella, former assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and a former prison warden, described what life will be like for James Degorski if he's sentenced to life in prison without parole.

It is no picnic.

"Incarceration is punishment," he said.

A psychologist testified earlier that Degorski, who has a mostly unblemished record as a Cook County Jail inmate, will likely adapt well to prison. If he receives a life sentence, Degorski will be placed in a maximum security facility where he will share a cell of about 70 square feet with another inmate, DeTella said. He will be allowed some personal items, which he can purchase at the prison commissary.

He will eat breakfast in his cell but will have lunch and dinner in a communal dining room. He will have three to five hours of recreation each week, three showers per week and may be eligible for a prison job, DeTella said. He will also be allowed to attend religious services and have about five visits per month from people on an approved visitor list.

The atmosphere in his cell house will be noisy, chaotic and possibly dangerous, DeTella said. Inmates in general population have a greater risk of being victimized by other inmates because the staffing level is lower than it is for inmates on death row, which is generally considered safer, insofar as each inmate occupies his own cell, DeTella said.

Over time, an inmate sentenced to a maximum security facility may move to a medium security facility, said DeTella. But he knows of it happening only twice, to inmates in their late 60s and early 70s who had already served more than 30 years of their life sentences.

If Degorski should become violent or disruptive in a maximum security facility, he could be reassigned to the supermax at Tamms, Ill., where he could be housed in his cell for up to 23 hours per day, DeTella said.

DeTella agreed with Assistant State's Attorney Tom Biesty that life in IDOC is tough.

"It's not a life you would choose," said Biesty, "but it is a life."

Closing arguments begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Chicago.