Daily Herald
Second Brown's Chicken slayings trial begins today
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/31/2009 12:01 AM

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Today the work begins for 12 jurors and four alternates selected to hear evidence in the trial of James Degorski, charged with the 1993 slayings of seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

Their task won't be easy. And it will be considerably more difficult than the lengthy interview process they endured earlier this month which led to their selection from a pool of 150 prospective jurors.

As prospective jurors summoned to the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago earlier this month, they spent anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour answering questions from attorneys about their knowledge of the Brown's Chicken murders.

One of the suburbs' most notorious cases, the Brown's Chicken murders remained unsolved for nine years until Anne Lockett and Eileen Bakalla, high school friends of Degorski and co-defendant Juan Luna, revealed to police that the two men had confessed they'd murdered restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis on the night of Jan. 8, 1993. Luna was convicted of the murders in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

During jury selection, the 16 men and women also responded to questions about their opinions on the death penalty; their willingness to consider life in prison without parole for multiple murders; their ability to reserve judgment on a death sentence (should the trial reach that stage) until they've heard mitigation and aggravation testimony; and their ability to maintain their belief even if 11 of their fellow jurors oppose it.

That experience will be nothing compared to what they will experience in the coming weeks. They will hear heart-rending statements from victims' family members - statements that brought some jurors in Luna's 2007 trial to tears. They may hear complex scientific testimony and be asked to view gruesome crime scene photographs over the course of a four-week trial.

At the end of it, they will decide Degorski's guilt or innocence. Depending on their verdict, they may be asked to decide whether he lives or dies.

The jurors will do all of that, while simultaneously taking time away from their families and work, which some jurors have already acknowledged could pose a financial hardship.

During Luna's trial, the jury was sequestered for several days in a hotel with no access to their families, telephones, newspapers, radio or TV.

Throughout the selection process, Cook County Judge Vincent M. Gaughan, who also presided over Luna's trial, expressed the court's appreciation to the more than 100 potential candidates interviewed for the Degorski jury.

"Nobody takes your service for granted," he said.

How the case will move forward

A capital murder trial unfolds in three phases.

The guilt/innocence phase

Begins with opening statements from the prosecution and defense followed by testimony. Prosecutors typically introduce physical evidence, such as a weapon, or a videotaped confession at this time. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution; the defendant is presumed innocent throughout the process. Closing arguments followed by jury deliberations conclude this phase. To convict, jurors must unanimously conclude a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If they find the defendant innocent, the trial ends and the defendant is released. If they find the defendant guilty, the trial moves to the next phase.

The eligibility phase

Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's crimes qualify him or her for death under Illinois law. To qualify for the death penalty, the crime must satisfy at least one of 20 aggravating factors, which include premeditation, multiple victims or a murder committed during the course of another felony. If jurors find a defendant ineligible for the death penalty, the court sentences him or her to life in prison without parole. If jurors unanimously find the defendant eligible for the death penalty, the trial moves into its final phase.

Sentencing

Defense attorneys present mitigating evidence or reasons they believe the jury should spare the defendant's life. Prosecution lawyers present evidence in aggravation, or reasons they believe death is the appropriate punishment. Jurors weigh that evidence, along with evidence presented during the previous phases, to decide whether the death sentence is appropriate. If even one juror votes for life in prison, that is the sentence.