Daily Herald
What the jury in the latest Brown's Chicken murder trial will face
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/10/2009 12:04 AM

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One day. One trial.

That's the promise Cook County makes its residents summoned for jury duty. Prospective jurors show up to their assigned courthouse on their designated day and wait to be selected. Those who aren't leave with the county's thanks and a check for $17.20 for each day they serve.

For about a dozen and a half jurors who will be selected to decide the fate of accused mass murderer James Degorski, there's much more in store. Degorski is charged with the 1993 slayings of Brown's Chicken & Pasta employees Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

His trial, expected to last a month or more, will disrupt jurors' lives and their work. The testimony might shock and unsettle them - as it did jurors who convicted Degorski co-defendant Juan Luna two years ago. Serving on the jury may put a strain on their families, especially if they are sequestered during their deliberations as the Luna jurors were.

The trial may cause them financial hardship, especially the self-employed who don't get paid when they don't work.

And at they end of it, they may have to make a gut-wrenching decision. If they vote to convict Degorski, they then will have to decide whether he lives or dies.

A citizen's obligation

The dread that accompanies the arrival of a jury summons is mostly unwarranted.

Only 8 percent of Cook County felonies go to trial, which translates to about 5 percent of people summoned actually serving on a jury. And most don't serve very long. Trials typically last a couple of days. Long trials like Degorski's are the exception - but their jurors provide a critical service, legal experts stress.

"Jurors are defending the very cornerstone of our justice system," said Sam Amirante, a former Cook County Circuit Court judge now in private practice in Palatine. "Their duty is no less important than those soldiers who are dying in Afghanistan to protect our freedom."

Since Congress abolished the military draft more than 30 years ago, jury service remains the country's only remaining compulsory service.

"Jury duty is the one occasion today when an American can be drafted into service," said attorney Clarence Burch, who headed Luna's defense team.

Yet, most people treat a jury summons like the onset of flu season: hoping the bug passes them by.

Usually it does. Last year, 428,205 eligible prospective jurors in Cook County received summonses. Only 22,000 of them actually served. That's about 5 percent, coincidentally the minimum proportion of Americans who come down with influenza each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Everybody thinks jury service is really important and they'd be happy to serve - but not today," said jury expert Shari Seidman Diamond, a Northwestern University School of Law professor.

Prospective jurors typically cite a medical condition, role as a primary caregiver for a child or economic hardship when they're looking to get out of jury duty, Diamond said, and the law allows the courts to excuse people for those reasons.

"People who tend to get out of juries are people who run small businesses," said attorney Stephen Richards, also a member of Luna's defense team. "They can't keep the business going for four weeks and serve on a jury."

Amirante sympathizes but says courts can't make exceptions.

"We don't want to destroy someone's family," he said, "but if we let people get out of jury duty (because of) inconvenience, the defense or the state won't get a fair cross section of society."

Reluctant jurors don't bother Richards, who believes they're more likely to give the defense a "fair shot."

Overeager jurors concern Assistant Public Defender Jim Mullenix, because their eagerness suggests an agenda, which can pose a problem in a case like Degorski's, where the death penalty is an option. Any juror who advocates the death penalty in all circumstances likely would be excluded for cause, Mullenix said. The same would hold for a juror who refuses to impose the death penalty under any circumstances. A savvy judge and experienced attorneys can tell the difference.

"Judge Vincent Gaughan (who presided over Luna's trial and will preside over Degorski's) is a master at persuading people to give up their prejudices and tell the truth, to be honest and serve," Richards said.

The 'ideal' juror

Experts say there's no such thing as a prosecutor's or a defense's juror. Moreover, stereotypes related to gender, education level, economic status, residence, political affiliation, religion don't necessarily hold, Richards said.

And diversity is desirable. For example, Luna's jury included a 22-year-old unemployed mortgage specialist from Westchester, a 40-year-old City of Chicago Water Department employee who had a run-in with the law, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom who came from a religious family, a Navy veteran involved in Chicago's community policing program and a naturalized citizen originally from Poland who worked as a Cook County probation officer.

"It's more complicated than a few demographic characteristics," Diamond said.

"A defense lawyer wants more liberal jurors who might be more inclined to acquit, as opposed to insurance or bank executives who are more conservative" and might side with the prosecution, said Amirante, who defended John Wayne Gacy Jr.

"I like jurors who have had life experience," said Mullenix, who represents D'Andre Howard, charged in the April slayings of three members of Hoffman Estates' Engelhardt family.

Richards prefers older jurors and former military men and women who know how to follow rules. But more than anything, both sides want someone impartial.

"I look for a juror who will give my client a fair hearing and not leap to a rash conclusion that he or she is guilty," Burch said.

"I want jurors who I think can understand and accept the argument I want to make. People can have prior impressions regarding different types of crimes or different types of clients. This can get in the way of them accepting your argument or make it easier for them to relate. But I'm not looking for any 'type.'"

Enduring a long trial

Real trials rarely pack the punch of their cinematic counterparts like "CSI" or "Law and Order," which makes keeping the jury's interest a challenge for attorneys.

"A long trial is a demanding experience. It can also be a very gripping experience," Diamond said.

But while jurors tend to sit up and take notice when an evidence technician takes the stand, their testimony rarely unfolds as dramatically as it does on television.

"Jurors get bored and tired, and I can understand because I do, too," Burch said.

A well-managed trial helps combat that boredom. Judges and attorneys can do their part by adhering to a reasonable schedule, stipulating to certain facts or issues, keeping sidebars to a minimum, ruling on controversial issues in advance and streamlining cross examination.

"Cases also have an inherent drama that you can tap into, and it comes naturally to me to offer a passionate defense, which helps the jury not lose sight of either that drama or the evidence I'm presenting," Burch said.

Just because jurors expect more drama than they get doesn't mean they don't pay attention, Diamond said. Moreover, the courts make their job easier by providing them with written instructions on the law instead of just reciting it. "Jurors want to get it right," Diamond said. "The challenge is to make sure they understand enough so they can get it right. For the most part, they do."

After the trial, at least one Luna juror remarked that while he was glad it was over, he found the experience educational.

Mullenix recalled the words of a judge who presided over hundreds of high-profile trials: "He always said, 'You privileged few who are picked, you won't forget this. And you'll be a better citizen because of it.'"