Daily Herald
Quick capital murder verdicts not rare, even without scientific evidence
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/30/2009 7:43 PM | Updated: 9/30/2009 7:53 PM

It took 16 years for James Degorski's past to catch up with him.

A Cook County jury decided that was long enough.

Members took about 90 minutes - over lunch - to pick a foreman and find Degorski guilty this week of the 1993 Palatine Browns Chicken & Pasta mass murder.

The verdict seems swift, especially after a four-week-long trial in which prosecutors lacked direct scientific evidence placing the defendant at the crime scene. But it's not unprecedented.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Degorski, 37, who along with his high school pal Juan Luna gunned down two restaurant owners and their five employees. Luna, 35, is serving a life prison term. It took his jury nearly 12 hours in 2007 to convict him despite having DNA and palm print evidence and a 43-minute videotaped confession. Two jurors on his case disagreed on how much the physical evidence helped.

"DNA is nice to have but, to be honest, it went over my head," said Sherwood Brown, a Chicago computer programmer who served on Luna's jury. "For me, the witness testimony that matched (evidence at the crime scene) was the clincher."

Fellow Luna juror John Polishak, a Chicago plumber, disagreed: "You can't beat DNA. It proved it. They can't put Degorski at that crime scene. How else do you prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?"

The brief deliberations in Degorski's trial is irrelevant, if surprising, experts said.

"The verdict would never be reversed just because it was quick," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C, "The quickness could even be seen as a positive thing by (higher) courts; that this was a clear-cut case in which no reasonable doubt was raised."

He added: "It's surprising, given the length of the trial."

"That's inordinately short," said Rob Warden, director of Northwestern University's The Center on Wrongful Convictions. "The jury, obviously, had its mind made up but you can't criticize the jury on the basis of coming back fast. If the jury did not deliberate fairly, then it becomes an issue."

A Cook County jury deliberated just one hour Feb. 10, 2006 before rejecting self-admitted serial killer Paul Runge's insanity defense for the sex slayings of a Chicago mother and her 10-year-old daughter. Two weeks later, the same jurors took the same length of time to vote to execute the former Carol Stream man, who admitted on videotape to seven murders.

Two years later, a DuPage County jury took just three hours to find Eric C. Hanson guilty of killing his Naperville parents, sister and brother-in-law. Days later, jurors deliberated just 90 minutes before sentencing him to death.

Conversely, in 1995, the O.J. Simpson jury took less than four hours to clear the football legend of the infamous double murder. A Kane County jury deliberated less than two hours in 2002 before voting to acquit in the murder of Hampshire police Sergeant Gregory Sears, who was shot to death while on duty in June 2000.

With more than 50 million people watching CBS's "CSI" series, experts say, juries often get lulled into thinking evidence technicians and lab experts can perform magic.

But, in reality, national studies have found fewer than half of criminal prosecutions - and perhaps as few as 10 percent - involve biological evidence such as DNA.

Though there was no physical or scientific evidence against Degorski, prosecutors were able to build their case largely through his own words, as told by a former lover and best friend, who knew details about the crime that weren't made public. A police sergeant and a former prosecutor who is now a judge also said Degorski confessed after his 2002 arrest.

All four testified Degorski admitted participating in the mass murder with Luna. And a co-worker, who is deeply religious, told jurors Degorski once asked him if God forgives those who kill.

"The challenge for the defense is that you have all these witnesses to discredit," said Harvey Moore, president of Tampa-based Trial Practices, a 25-year trial consulting firm. "You're talking about people who were the closest to him. A lover. A best friend. Who are you more likely to confide in?"

Then there was the Luna factor. He didn't testify. His taped confession in which he also implicates Degorski wasn't played. But jurors heard weeks of testimony connecting the men as partners in crime.

"They didn't have Degorski's DNA, but they had Luna's DNA and that was enough," said attorney Richard Kling, a Chicago Kent School of Law clinical professor. "You had the civilian testimony, his admission (as told through law enforcement), his connection to Juan Luna, and seven dead bodies "

"Obviously, it was overwhelming for the jury."