Daily Herald
Both sides make final pitch to Degorski jury
By Christy Gutowski, Kimberly Pohl and Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/29/2009 12:04 AM | Updated: 9/29/2009 1:45 PM

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When they adjourn behind closed doors later this afternoon, the 12 strangers who hold James Degorski's fate in their hands will consider contrasting portraits of the man accused of the 1993 Palatine Brown's Chicken mass murder.

In impassioned ongoing closing arguments, Degorski was portrayed as either a coldblooded killer or an innocent man who as a troubled youth falsely bragged he bore witness to the bloody crime in an effort to get attention.

Jurors began listening to lawyers' closing arguments at 11 a.m. today after an arduous four-week Cook County trial. Prosecutors opened first, with defense attorneys responding. Prosecutors will get the final say before the case goes to the jury later today.

The weight of the task before the six men and six women was evident in the solemn expressions they wore while entering the packed courtroom, which included Cook State's Attorney Anita Alvarez as a spectator.

The horror of that night filled the room. The victims' families wept for the loved ones they long ago lost but have not forgotten. Prosecutors showed photos of bullet-riddled bodies on a large projector screen. Some died with their eyes open.

On the other side of the gallery, Patricia Degorski sat quietly, not far from the son to whom she gave life.

James Degorski, dressed in dark slacks and a white long-sleeved shirt and tie, listened intently but he maintained his trademark stoical expression during the lengthy lawyer summations. He did not testify during his trial.

Prosecutor Tom Biesty said that on the winter night of Jan. 8, 1993, Degorski and his old high school pal Juan Luna killed their seven victims simply out of a desire to do "something big." At the time, Degorski was 20 and living in his parent's Hoffman Estates home.

More than 16 years later, a 37-year-old Degorski faces the death penalty if convicted.

The bodies of the victims - owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46; Thomas Mennes, 32; Marcus Nellsen, 31; and 17-year-old Rico Solis - who picked up a shift that night to make some extra cash - were found in a walk-in freezer and a cooler. All were shot in the head and some through their hands as they tried to shield themselves.

Defense attorney Mark Levitt, a senior Cook County public defender, attacked the credibility of the prosecution's largely circumstantial case - which lacked the same kind of forensic evidence against Degorski that tied Luna to the bloody crime scene.

Levitt conceded Degorski knew about the murders through Luna, 35, serving a life prison term since 2007. In fact, the defense said, Degorski even falsely bragged to a high school girlfriend and another friend that he was there when Luna went ballistic and started killing people.

Levitt said more than 60 forensic, police and other crime-scene experts testified.

"Not one of them is able to place him at the restaurant and the reason is simple - He was not there. He did not do it," Levitt said. "The prosecution has been scrambling. They can appeal to your emotions, because we all have emotions. They can appeal to your senses, but what they're lacking is evidence."

The absence of forensic evidence is not proof of Degorski's innocence, the prosecution countered, especially since they said the men wore rubber gloves in a carefully planned robbery of Luna's former workplace.

Biesty said Degorski may have been careful as to not leave behind his fingerprints or DNA, but he left a trail of overwhelming evidence through his own words. The prosecutor noted a half dozen witnesses who told the jury how Degorski implicated himself to them, revealing facts of the crime that had not been made public.

"As the blood of the victims and their life oozes out of them in the coolers, the defendants make their escape," Biesty said. "But what's the use of doing something big if you can't tell somebody?"

He added: "The truth cannot be defeated. The testimony corroborates the evidence."

The mass murder remained unsolved for nearly one decade until Degorski's former girlfriend, Anne Lockett England, told police in spring 2002 he confessed to her nine years earlier. England said she kept his murderous secret out of fear. She and another Degorski friend, Eileen Bakalla, of Lake County, testified in both trials. Each time, defense attorneys questioned their memories and credibility.

England, for example, has a history of mental illness, failed suicide attempts and substance abuse.

Though Degorski cannot be linked through DNA, the prosecution insists, the nibbled chicken and napkin evidence that held Luna's DNA and partial palm print are part of a puzzle that along with Bakalla and England, prove Degorski's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Luna implicated Degorski in his nearly 45-minute videotaped confession, but this jury was not allowed to hear those words.

To ensure a guilty verdict, prosecutors also presented two seasoned law enforcement officials - one of whom is now a judge - who said Degorski provided a detailed unrecorded confession to them in May 2002 after England's information led to his arrest. They said Degorski admitted firing the warning shot and killing two victims - Richard Ehlenfeldt and Mennes.

"Then what did he do?" Biesty told jurors. "He reloaded the gun and gave it to Juan Luna. He reloads the gun knowing there's more killing to be done."

Prosecutors said Degorski admitted cleaning up as Luna killed the rest of the victims, then Degorski disposed the murder weapon in the Fox River at the Algonquin Dam. The gun was never found. Though Degorski had bought a similar gun and 50 rounds of ammunition in summer 1993, authorities couldn't say with certainty that they were the same as the 20 bullets recovered at the crime scene.

The defense team tried to cast doubt on the veracity of Degorski's statements through the testimony of two people who said police pressured them in 1998 and 1999 to falsely confess. Neither was ever charged. The defense painted authorities as overzealous public servants who let their compassion for the victims' families and pressure to solve the high-profile case cloud their professional judgment.

If forensic evidence convicted Luna, it exonerates Degorski, his lawyers said. They pointed out a second unidentified DNA source on the chicken excludes Degorski. They suggested it belongs to Luna's real accomplice. Levitt said a fingerprint on a mop also did not belong to Degorski.

"Not only do they not have the pieces of the puzzle. The pieces they do have do not fit right," the defense attorney said. "Second and third hand information is not enough to convict anyone of any crime and you wouldn't want it to be so if you were on trial. It's not enough."

After closing arguments conclude, jurors will begin deliberating on Degorski's innocence or guilt. If they convict him, members of the panel next will decide if he is eligible for the death penalty and, if so, whether capital punishment is the just punishment. In Luna's trial, jurors took more than 11 hours to agree on his guilt. They deliberated for just four hours before rejecting the death penalty in favor of a life prison term after one lone juror refused to execute the Carpentersville man.

Cook Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan presided over both trials. It's unclear how late he will have the jury deliberate tonight if a swift verdict is not reached. The Luna jury was sequestered at a hotel overnight during its two-day deliberations.