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Jury finds Degorski eligible for death penalty

September 30, 2009 3:22:05 PM PDT
The final phase begins in the trial of a man convicted in the 1993 Brown's Chicken murders. James Degorski was found guilty Tuesday. The jury found Degorski eligible for a death sentence.

The next step is for the jury to decide if the death penalty is an appropriate sentence.

For the eligibility phase, prosecutors had to prove that Degorski was over 18 years of age and the crimes committed are eligible for capital punishment.

Prosecutors presented a birth certificate and testimony showing Degorski was 20 at the time of the murders. They also had to prove at least one of the following Elements of Eligibility:

- the defendant was convicted of murdering two or more people
- the murders were committed during the course of a felony or the crime was cold, calucated and premeditated

The defense presented no evidence but argued that the state had not met its burden.

However, the jury found that all elements of eligibility were met and that Degorski will now face the final phase of this trial in which he could be sentenced to death.

Degorski, 37, showed no emotion as the guilty verdict was read in a Chicago courtroom Tuesday. About 20 of the victims' family members, who sat holding hands and crying, left the courthouse without commenting after being told by the judge that doing so would preclude them from testifying at Degorski's sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors alleged Degorski shot and stabbed two owners and five employees of the Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine during a robbery "because he wanted to do something big." The bodies were found piled in the restaurant's walk-in freezer and cooler.

Luna was a former employee of the restaurant who told authorities he thought it would be an easy target at closing time.

Jurors did find Luna eligible for the death penalty. But while 11 of 12 jurors voted to send him to death row, the holdout vote meant he was sentenced to life in prison.

Capital punishment foes lauded the Luna jury's decision as a sign that wrongful conviction cases in Illinois made jurors less apt to support death sentences. The state has not carried out any executions since then-Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium in 2000.

"The prosecution has been scrambling," public defender Mark Levitt noted in closing arguments Tuesday. "They can appeal to your senses, but what they're lacking is evidence."

Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Tom Biesty said multiple witnesses testified that Degorski implicated himself to them.

"What's the use of doing something big if you can't tell somebody?" Biesty said.

Prosecutors said Degorski and Luna shot and stabbed restaurant owners Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, his wife Lynn, 49, and five of their employees: Michael Castro, 16; Rico Solis, 17; Marcus Nellsen, 31; Thomas Mennes, 32; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46.

Investigators had a wealth of physical evidence against Luna, including a palm print and DNA that put him at the crime scene. Luna also gave police a lengthy videotaped statement in which he implicated himself and Degorski.

A brief statement taken from Degorski after his arrest was far less detailed..

Degorski and Luna were arrested in May 2002 after Anne Lockett came forward. She said it took her a decade to do so because the men had threatened to kill her.

Lockett, who became one of the prosecution's star witnesses, testified that the motive for the killings was partly curiosity, saying Luna wanted to know what it was like to kill someone and Degorski agreed to help.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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