Penalty phase begins in Palatine massacre

October 1, 2009 4:54:30 PM PDT
Relatives of the people killed at the Brown's Chicken Restaurant are getting their chance to tell James Degorski what he's done to their lives.Earlier this week, a jury convicted Degorski of those murders. Now they will determine if he will get the death penalty.

It was a difficult day for the victim's families.

Thursday they began telling jurors and Degorski how the murders of their loved ones devastated their lives.

Robert Mennes the brother of Tom Mennes said to Degorski:

"Do you sleep? Do you have nightmares? I still see Tom in my dreams."

Juan Maldonado, the eldest son of Guadelupe Maldonado, spoke of the suffering of his mother and younger brothers.

Maldonado struggled to finish his statement saying, "I hope there will be justice."

Diane Clayton, the mother of Marcus Nellsen, needed to be escorted to the witness stand. She trembled and cried as she addressed Degorski:

"You went on living your lives. How can you live with yourselves?"

James Degorski was convicted on Tuesday for the murders of seven people at the Brown's Chicken and Pasta in 1993.

Thursday's testimony was part of the sentencing hearing as the state is seeking the death penalty.

In 2007 Degorski's high school friend Juan Luna was convicted and is serving a life sentence for the murders.

Jade Solis read a statement for her sister Jizelle. Their brother Rico Solis was killed.

"I don't know how you can sleep with seven different blood on your hands," she said.

Mary Jane Crow, the sister of Michael Castro, spoke sweetly of her deceased baby brother and turned defiant, telling Degorski:

"God works in mysterious ways. What goes around comes around and all the pain and suffering you caused will come back to you."

The day's final testimony came from Dana Sampson, one of three daughters of Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt.

"You broke our hearts, nearly crushed our spirit, fractured our souls and robbed us of our innocence."

The jury also heard testimony from one of Degorski's former girlfriends, who said he regularly beat her, and after she broke up with him, Degorski kidnapped her for five hours in 1992. Beaten and bound with duct tape, she agreed to get back together, and he let her go.

Testimony for the state resumes tomorrow morning.

The jury must be unanimous in choosing a death sentence. If they are not united in that decision, the sentence will be life in prison without parole.

Degorski is the second suspect in the slayings to be convicted.

Two years ago, Juan Luna was convicted but that jury could not agree unanimously on whether he should be sentenced to death, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

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 the 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.

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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