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Brown's jury spares James Degorski's life
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/20/2009 5:22 PM | Updated: 10/20/2009 11:52 PM

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Ten jurors wanted James Degorski to forfeit his life for murdering seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken and Pasta on Jan. 8, 1993.

Two disagreed. In the end, they prevailed.

And late Tuesday afternoon after a heart-wrenching, frequently cringe-inducing, seven-week trial followed by five hours of sometimes tense deliberations, the six-man, six-woman jury sentenced Degorski to life in prison without parole for the murders of owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

It took 16 years - as long as the youngest victim, Michael Castro, lived - for justice to be complete. A jury convicted Luna of the murders in 2007 and sentenced him to life in prison after a lone juror voted to spare his life.

Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt's sister, said she had opposed the death penalty but now acknowledges newfound ambivalence.

"I found myself hoping he'd get the death penalty and that's so against my principles," she said tearfully following the verdict.

And yet, she added, "if murdering seven people in the horrific way he (Degorski) did is not enough for the death penalty, in my mind I wonder what is and I walk away saddened because I don't know."

Diane Clayton, mother of Marcus Nellsen, was not so conflicted. She said that while she accepts the jury's verdict, she is not happy about it.

"In my mind, Jim Degorski deserved the death penalty," she said. "I don't think there will ever be closure. That would be like closing my son out of my life and I can never do that."

The strain proved too much for Clayton, who collapsed shortly after speaking to the press. Medical personnel attended to her, and she returned to the post-trial news conference.

During Tuesday's closing arguments, prosecutors urged the jury to impose the death penalty. The defense argued for mercy.

Both had the law on their side, and jury forewoman Cynthia Rathburn and juror Alex Drott said the debate in the jury room often became heated.

They said the jury did not consider Luna's life sentence it during their deliberation.

The jury initially voted eight to four in favor of death, Rathburn said. The discussion got heated and a little frustrating, she said, but eventually, the members all agreed they were not going to agree. The final vote was 10 to two in favor of death. The law requires a unanimous verdict in order for the death penalty to be imposed.

Prosecutors had argued passionately that the carnage Degorski inflicted on those seven innocent victims left jurors with only one choice. Assistant State's Attorney Tom Biesty punctuated his closing arguments with photographs of the victims as they appeared in life and after death.

"He and his partner were judge, jury and executioner," said Biesty. "This is his handiwork."

And it was purely intentional. He brought a gun, bullets and a knife, said Biesty, "everything but a mask because this was all about killing."

This convicted murderer must be punished, argued Biesty, and the penalty should be death.

"He has given you no choice," Biesty said. "He has put you into this position by what he has done."

But the jurors do have a choice, countered lead defense attorney Mark Levitt. They have the power to determine Degorski's fate.

"There is never a mandatory punishment, even for the most serious crimes, even this crime," Levitt said.

"The law allows you to show mercy. It's never easy, especially in this case," he said. "It takes courage. It takes strength."

Levitt reminded the jury of the defense's mitigation evidence: the abuse to which Patricia Degorski and half-dozen psychologists testified his father inflicted upon Jim and his siblings, the chaos of their family life and the fear that gripped them.

Asked later about the impact of that testimony, Joy Ehlenfeldt said, "that information was very sobering and it made us realize how blessed the three of us were for the very supportive and loving home environment we grew up in."

Levitt also reminded jurors of the neurological problems and cognitive deficits Degorski suffered as a result of the beatings; his attempts to deny and minimize the damage, and his nearly unblemished record in Cook County Jail that suggest he would be a manageable inmate if sentenced to life without parole.

Levitt insisted none of that excuses or justifies the crimes Degorski and co-defendant and Luna committed, and that mercy would not diminish the nature of their crime.

"Mercy is less about the person who receives it than the person who gives it," said Levitt. "It's an expression of humanity for a person regardless of whether he earned it."

Ultimately, two strangers granted it. Rathburn and Drott, both of whom voted for death, declined to try to explain the reasoning of the two insistent jurors.

They said the testimony of Degorski's former girlfriend Anne Lockett England and high school friend Eileen Bakalla carried the most weight with them.

"Those two knew little details that coincided with Mr. Degorski's confession," Rathburn said.

She specifically mentioned the wedge that prosecutors said the two men placed at the back exit to prevent anyone's escape.

The extreme nature of the crime convinced Drott that death was the appropriate sentence.

Drott, who was in his early teens when the murders occurred, said he never imagined he'd be seated on the Brown's Chicken jury. It's an experience he will never forget.

"There are pictures that will never come out of my mind," he said.

Degorski, 37, sat impassively, blinking occasionally during closing arguments which lasted about two hours. He maintained the same stoical demeanor as the verdict was announced.

His mother Patricia appeared wan and tearful but visibly relieved to hear her son's life had been spared.

"I appreciate the jury's decision," she said at a news conference following the verdict. "My heart goes out to what the families of the victims have been through this whole trial. I appreciate how kind and caring they have been."

During his closing argument, Assistant State's Attorney Linas Kelecius condemned Degorski's "abuse excuse," urging the jury to disregard those charges which he said had never been documented by medical or school personnel and to which only members of the Degorski family have testified.

"He has no abuse excuse and you shouldn't buy it," insisted Kelecius. "Take the man at his word. He said he wanted to do something big."

A life sentence allows Degorski to work, participate in recreation activities, socialize with fellow inmates, purchase goods at the prison commissary and even receive visitors, Kelecius.

"The victims get visits too, but they get them at their grave sites," he said.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez praised the prosecution team and expressed respect for the jury's verdict even though it was not the one they wanted.

Still, Degorski has been "held accountable for what he did and in that case, justice has been served," she said.

"Our hearts go out to the victims' families who have suffered for years and years and years," she added.

Jennifer Shilling, the Ehlenfeldt's oldest daughter referenced the long wait for justice in her comments to the media following the verdict announcement. She also described the shock, anger and bewilderment she and her sisters faced the "night the two most important people in our lives our mother and father were so senselessly taken from us."

"Nothing can ever right the horrific wrongs committed by Juan Luna and Jim Degorski," she said. "This conviction finally brings this ordeal to an end."