Cook County jail inmates often assault staff and each other, flood their cells and set fires, sometimes on a daily basis, but that's not the case with James Degorski, who correctional officers from the jail described as a model inmate thriving in a brutal environment.
The sixth week of Degorski's capital murder trial opened today with four character witnesses, all Cook County correctional officers, testifying on the convicted killer's behalf.
Last Tuesday, a jury of six men and six women found Degorski guilty of murder in the deaths of seven people at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant. The panel next will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. In 2007, Degorski's accomplice Juan Luna was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the killings.
Degorski has been held at the county jail since his arrest in May 2002. Department of Corrections Capt. Tyrone Everhart told the jury today that in that time Degorski was cited with only one disciplinary ticket -- he failed to stand for a head count and was found lying in the fetal position underneath his bunk. The captain did not know why Degorski was found in that condition.
Officer Jose Reyes said Degorski served as a volunteer worker for him and is allowed to be outside his cell unshackled so he can help clean up trays in the maximum security tier. Being in a common area for more than one designated hour each day is a privilege not afforded most of the other prisoners, Reyes said..
"He's humorous, talkative," Reyes said. "Compared to the other inmates, he has never given me a problem."
Reyes went on to testify that Degorski did not "act out" upon returning to his cell following his guilty verdict whereas many inmates become aggressive in that circumstance.
Degorski's behavior eventually got him transferred to the "old man's deck," a part of the jail typically reserved for inmates 40 years old and older who don't cause problems. Degorski is 37.
The prosecution kept its cross examination brief, having witnesses point out that many pretrial prisoners exhibit good behavior. The trial resumes this afternoon before Judge Vincent M. Gaughan in Chicago.