Degorski jury begins death penalty deliberations

  • James Degorski

    James Degorski

Published: 10/20/2009 12:32 PM | Updated: 10/20/2009 2:27 PM

More than seven weeks after it began, jury service is drawing to a close for the six men and six women charged with determining the fate of James Degorski, convicted last month of the 1993 slayings of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

The same 12-person jury that deliberated less than two hours before convicting Degorski of seven counts of first-degree murder last month, adjourned at 12:25 p.m. Tuesday to determine whether he lives or dies. A death sentence requires a unanimous verdict. One lone juror can save Degorski's life if he or she votes for life without parole.

During closing arguments in the sentencing phase, prosecutors urged the six-man, six-woman jury to impose the death penalty.

The defense argued for mercy.

Both had the law on their side.

The carnage Degorski inflicted on those seven innocent victims at a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta 16 years ago leave jurors with only one choice, said Assistant State's Attorney Tom Biesty who punctuated his statements with photographs of owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis as they looked in life and how they looked after death.

"He and his partner were judge jury and executioner," said the impassioned 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, argued 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."

"I'm here to tell you Jim Degorski deserves your mercy," said Levitt during a heartfelt, well-structured closing argument.

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

Yet Levitt insisted none of that excuses or justifies the actions of Degorski and co-defendant and fellow convicted murderer Juan Luna did on Jan. 8, 1993. 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.

A life sentence does not absolve Degorski, who will spend the rest of his days rotting at a state penitentiary, Levitt said. But the jury can, in a show of mercy, grant it.

"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."

Degorski, 37, sat impassively, blinking occasionally during closing arguments which lasted about two hours.

In his sharply worded rebuttal, Assistant State's Attorney Linas Kelecius urged the jury to disregard charges of abuse which he said had never been documented by medical or school personnel and to which only members of the Degorski family have testified.

"You heard a lot about abuse, but what abuse did the defendant have?" said Kelecius who condemned what he characterized as "abuse excuse."

"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.

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

Degorski has not expressed a drop of remorse, Kelecius, and he won't experience any housed in the general population. Housing him on death row, isolated in his cell for 23 hours a day will force him to think about his victims.

So what if the department of corrections can handle him. So what if he can be rehabilitated. So what if he was allegedly abused, "the punishment should fit the crime," Kelecius said.

A life sentence does not suffice, he concluded.

The jury continues its deliberations Tuesday afternoon in Chicago.