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Degorski's fate intertwined with Luna's
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/12/2007

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Jim Degorski appeared in court Friday with his lawyers to hash out when he will face a jury that will rule on his alleged role in the Brown's Chicken murders.

He stood in the same marble and dark wood-lined courtroom where Juan Luna was convicted for the slayings just the previous night.

The irony underscores how intertwined the two trials are -- as connected as Luna and Degorski allegedly were on that twisted night of Jan. 8, 1993.

In the closing arguments of Luna's trial, Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Scott Cassidy characterized the two men on that night this way: "Two losers who found each other and (who) wanted to do something big."

Degorski is facing a separate trial, and a start date has yet to be determined. He has pleaded not guilty and, like Luna, could face the death penalty if convicted.

On Friday the 34-year-old man's lawyers were chastised by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan for apparently falling behind on the depositions of key witnesses, indicating it may be months before a jury is selected and testimony begins. Degorski's lawyers say they were ordered by the court not to talk to the media about the case.

Another status hearing for Degorski's case has been scheduled for Wednesday, a day that Luna's jury will likely be hearing arguments in the same courtroom about whether the convicted killer should be put to death.

It is clear Luna's conviction does not bode well for Degorski's case.

First of all, it indicates a jury can find the testimony of the two key witnesses believable. It also shows a jury can look beyond the repeated police errors in the near decade-long investigation and even the videotaped confession of a different man to the crime.

Luna's defense team hung its hat on that confession, investigation mistakes and a relentless effort to undermine the witnesses' integrity.

The state's case against Degorski is noticeably weaker than the one it won against Luna.

Degorski didn't make a videotaped confession like Luna, but police say he did make incriminating statements off tape during his 2002 interrogation. The state also lacks the DNA and print evidence against Degorski that it had tying Luna to the crime.

The revolver and knife used in the killings, as well as the clothes the killers wore, all disappeared as time passed without an arrest.

The state's case largely hinges on the testimony of Degorski's ex-girlfriend Anne Lockett and his longtime friend Eileen Bakalla. Both say the two men detailed the crime to them in the weeks after they carried it out. Bakalla admits she helped them divvy up the stolen cash and took at least $50 of it for herself.

Luna's defense team tried to tear the two women down as drug addicts and drunks who had vendettas against Luna or Degorski.

In Bakalla's case, attorneys suggested she may still be carrying a torch for her ex-lover, as evidenced by the vacation they took together a month before Degorski's arrest.

If the state's case against Degorski is weak, prosecutors always have the option to try to flip Luna against him. But that would require they give up their long-declared goal of executing the 33-year-old, who had apparently grown up since the killings into a father and husband with a steady job as an appliance installer living in Carpentersville.

"Usually, this kind of deal is floated before trial, especially in a case where the offense is so heinous," said Jeff Urdangen, clinical professor of law at Northwestern University. "It is hard after all this to say, 'We will not seek the death penalty after all,' and to tell the victim's families that."

Plus, Urdangen said the prosecution's case against Degorski may only seem weak compared to the mountain of evidence the state had against Luna.

"In general, it is very hard to win an acquittal in a case when you have evidence the guy is guilty and the crime is of this kind of magnitude," he said. "I would think the prosecution is not overly concerned."