Eileen Bakalla, a key witness for the prosecution in the capital trial of James Degorski, took the stand on his behalf Tuesday, declaring that she refuses to believe her lifelong friend is capable of murdering seven people on his own and saying the vicious slayings that cold night on Jan. 8, 1993, never would have happened if not for Juan Luna.
"I personally don't think (Degorski) deserves what he's gotten," said Bakalla, wearing an olive dress and cream sweater. "I don't believe Jim could have committed a crime so heinous. He was the giver. He was the one that took care of people. He was a lover, not a fighter."
Bakalla testified in the defense's portion of the death penalty hearing. The same jury which took less than two hours to convict Degorski last week will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. Luna, his co-defendant who was convicted in the case in 2008, is serving a life sentence.
Bakalla said she got to know Degorski, whom she described as a "burnout" with straggly hair and torn-up jeans, when they worked at Jake's Pizza in Palatine in the early 1990s. She was working there the night of the murders and met up with Degorski and Luna afterward. As the pair confessed to the gruesome details of how they took seven lives, Bakalla said a remorseful Degorski cried.
"The night he told me about it he was very sad," said Bakalla, now a 36-year-old single mother of two young children. "He had tears in his eyes. He couldn't believe something like this happened. He was remorseful ... He's always been very kind and gentle."
Following Bakalla's testimony, a clinical psychologist took the stand to describe Degorski's painful upbringing and family life.
Dr. Robert Smith, a psychologist in private practice who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and is associated with several hospitals, provided a chilling account of a household plagued by abuse, sexual deviance and chemical dependency. He said the picture was drawn from several hours interviewing Degorski, his parents and two siblings and reviewing school, employment and hospital records.
Smith spoke at length about Degorski's father, William, who he diagnosed as having depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of serving in Vietnam. Smith testified the elder Degorski abused alcohol and was extremely paranoid, installing wiretaps, spy holes and chicken wire at the family's Hoffman Estates house.
William Degorski also told Smith he never wore clothes at home, even in front of his children. A therapist admonished his behavior, so the father entered his "Indian phase" of life and took to wearing a loin cloth, the psychologist testified.
In 1989, William Degorski was forced to move out following a Department of Children and Family Services investigation into claims the elder Degorski threatened his family with guns, Smith testified.
Smith also recalled his interview with Degorski's mother, Patricia, who described hospitalizations for depression, suicidal thoughts and physical and sexual abuse by her husband. The marriage finally dissolved when Degorski's older sister came forward with allegations she was sexually abused by her father for nine years until she was 12 years old, Smith said.
"Together they (William and Patricia Degorski) are not able to support each other and are not able to parent effectively," Smith said.
Degorski's parents have attended many days of the testimony during the six-week trial, usually sitting apart from one another, but neither were in the courtroom on Tuesday.
In his 11 hours of interviews with James Degorski, Smith said the convicted killer was defensive of his family and didn't want to upset them by revealing family secrets. But he admitted to difficulties in school, his parents' dysfunctional marriage and his father's physical abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior.
Degorski also told Smith he started drinking at age 10 and smoking pot at age 12. By his late teenage years, Degorski was regularly abusing multiple drugs including cocaine and LSD, Smith said.
"He said it helped him cope with life," Smith said.
Bakalla's testimony corroborated Smith's account, but she tried to focus on the redeeming qualities of the friend with whom she was "inseparable." She said Degorski stepped into a parenting role to take care of his younger siblings, and that he was a peacemaker when fights broke out at parties.
Bakalla also dismissed earlier testimony by Kristin Smith, who said former Fremd High School boyfriend Degorski punched, slapped and abused her during their one-year relationship and described one particularly harrowing account in which Degorski was convicted of brutally beating and threatening to kill her.
Degorski became more giving following the murders, Bakalla testified. The two remained close friends despite his moving to Arizona and Indianapolis. Just three weeks before his arrest in May 2002, Bakalla took a road trip to Florida with her fiance and Degorski, she said.
Testimony resumes today in Chicago.