A federal jury awarded a man serving a life-sentence for the 1993 massacre of seven workers at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in suburban Palatine nearly a half-million dollars in his civil rights lawsuit against a former Cook County Jail guard accused of beating him in 2002.
When told by the Tribune Saturday of the jury’s decision in favor of James Degorski the day before, the families of the victims expressed outrage.
“The first thought is, ‘it kind of feels like a slap in the face,’“ said Dana Sampson, 42. “It’s just very disheartening.”
Her parents Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt owned the restaurant and were shot to death along with five employees on Jan. 8, 1993, in one of the most gruesome and infamous mass killings in the Chicago area. All seven victims were found the next day in the restaurant’s cooler and freezer. Degorski and Juan Luna were charged with the murders in 2002. Luna was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2007; Degorski in 2009.
Degorski’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, said the jury’s decision in U.S. District Court in Chicago protects the constitutional rights of everyone.
“It really stands to the proposition that our constitutional rights are not on a sliding scale for some people,” she said. “That’s not what this country is built on. As soon as we start going down that path … we’re on a slippery slope where all of our rights are in jeopardy.”
In May 2002, a few hours after he arrived in the maximum-security tier at Cook County Jail, Degorski, now 41, was allegedly beaten by Thomas Wilson, who was a Cook County Sheriff’s deputy.
The blows left Degorski with facial fractures that required surgery to insert two metal plates in his face. Wilson was placed on unpaid leave and eventually fired in 2004 by the Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board.
Wilson claimed his actions were in self-defense, and a Cook County circuit judge acquitted him in 2003 of aggravated battery and official misconduct charges.
In May 2004, Degorski sued Wilson, another correctional officer, and former Sheriff Michael Sheahan. The suit accused Wilson of using excessive force and the others for failing to stop him.
The civil case was postponed while Degorski’s criminal case played out in court. During that time, his attorney in the civil suit died, Bonjean said, and it appeared he might not find another willing to represent him. He was convicted of the mass murders in 2009; his accomplice Juan Luna was convicted in 2007.
“Not many people were signing up for the Brown’s Chicken murderer’s civil rights case,” said Bonjean, whose firm is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Degorski wrote Bonjean and asked for her help, she said. He maintained his innocence in the letter, but she said his murder conviction did not factor into her decision.
“No hesitation,” she said. “If you are a true civil rights layer, this is a dream case.”
A key component of the case, which ended last week, revolved around how much information regarding the murders would be shared with the jury, she said. The jury was told Degorski was a convicted murderer, but they were not given any of the details surrounding that conviction.
That information “was not relevant in any way, shape or form to whether excessive force was justified,” Bonjean said.
Had the jury learned that information, Degorski’s credibility might have been questioned, said Wilson’s attorney, John Winters Jr.
“The shackles were taken off James Degorski and they were placed on the defendant correctional officers,” Winters said. “I hope jurors read this article, and they find out that James Degorski, unprovoked, took the lives of seven people. They probably thought he was somebody other than who he is. I don’t fault the jury. They didn’t know.”
The $451,000 award gives Degorski $225,000 in compensatory damages, Bonjean said, which is Cook County’s responsibility. The remaining $226,000 in punitive damages will come from Wilson, she said.
But it’s still unclear how much, if any of that money, will go to Degorski. The Illinois Department of Corrections may be entitled to a portion of the money for his upkeep, Bonjean said. The victims’ families may also file suit to receive a share.
Source: Chicago Tribune