Daily Herald
Experts testify Degorski not a psychopath
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/16/2009 8:20 PM | Updated: 10/16/2009 8:21 PM

James Degorski is not a psychopath. Not according to a psychologist who testified Friday during the ongoing sentencing phase of Degorski's capital murder trial.

"He does not fit the profile of people who typically, on their own, kill many people," said Orest Wasyliw, a clinical psychologist who has evaluated hundreds of individuals who've murdered, including people who've committed multiple murders.

Late last month, a jury convicted Degorski of the 1993 murders of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken and Pasta Restaurant. Degorski's co-defendant Juan Luna received life in prison following his 2007 conviction.

Wasyliw's testimony came on Friday, which marked the end of the trial's seventh week and the second week of the defense's efforts to convince the jury to sentence Degorski to life in prison instead of death.

Wasyliw, a clinical psychologist and expert in the use of psychological tests to evaluate criminal defendants, came to his conclusion after interviewing Degorski six times between 2005 and 2006 and evaluating Degorski's response to 14 different psychological tests.

Dr. Peter Fink, a Rush University Medical Center psychiatrist, seconded Wasyliw's conclusion.

Before his first and only interview with Degorski several years ago, Fink said he expected to meet a psychopath: a cool, calculating, manipulative killer. Instead, he encountered a nervous, smiling Degorski who offered him sugarless candy and inquired if his chair was comfortable.

During the interview, Degorski "tried to make his family seem less sick" than the reports made them appear, Fink said. That Degorski denied or minimized reports of abuse struck Fink as unusual.

"I'm talking to a guy accused of murdering seven people who is so horribly disconnected from his own experience that he can't even string a line of BS to me," Fink testified.

Asked by lead defense attorney Mark Levitt about his post-interview impressions, Fink said, "this was a very damaged individual who was bravely, in a sense, trying to keep himself glued together any way he knew how."

"It was a sad and pathetic situation," he said.

Levitt asked Fink if Degorski's dissociation or disavowal of his trauma indicated a major mental disorder. Fink testified that he couldn't diagnose Degorski with such a disorder because Degorski would not acknowledge his symptoms. However, Fink testified that he believed Degorski was under extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the murders and that he suffered from reduced mental capacity at the time.

Lead prosecutor Linas Kelecius challenged that statement, pointing out in his cross examination that Fink did not express that opinion during his pretrial deposition. Fink responded that he did not express that opinion then because he was not asked a question that would allow him to express it. Moreover, Fink said that his report offers foundation for that opinion.

In his cross examination, Kelecius repeated the state's position that no one except Degorski family members ever made abuse allegations, and that those allegations came at the time when James Degorski's parents were going through a divorce.

Degorski is neither malingering nor is he attempting to fake a mental disorder, Wasyliw said. Rather than exaggerate symptoms in an attempt to gain an advantage at trial, Degorski did the opposite. Confronted with DCFS reports, court documents and testimony from therapists and psychologists describing the physical and sexual abuse within the Degorski family, James Degorski minimized and denied the allegations, Wasyliw said. What's more, he refused to acknowledge any symptoms related to such abuse, said Wasyliw, adding "this is his major way of protecting himself."

"He has more emotional and psychological problems than he's willing to admit," Wasyliw said.

A review of Degorski's voluminous records led Wasyliw to conclude that Degorski suffers from ADHD and learning disabilities, conditions to which other witnesses previously testified. Moreover, a childhood asthma attack that deprived his brain of oxygen; drug and alcohol abuse; reported physical abuse involving his head and two motor vehicle accidents involving head injuries likely left Degorski with minor brain damage, Wasyliw said.

Wasyliw testified that under stressful conditions Degorski's thinking becomes distorted and that he suppresses his emotions, metaphorically arming himself against them.

"He responds to problems by pushing problems deep down in himself- building an emotional wall around himself," Wasyliw said.

While this makes him appear unfeeling and blasé, it's actually a defense mechanism, Wasyliw said.

Testimony continues Monday. Closing arguments in the trial's sentencing phase are expected Tuesday.