The man convicted of perpetrating one of the most gruesome and notorious mass killings in Chicago-area history has been awarded nearly a half million dollars in a civil lawsuit against a prison guard accused of punching him in the face.
James Eric Degorski, now 41, and accomplice Juan Luna were convicted of shooting and stabbing to death two restaurant owners and five employees during a botched robbery at a suburban Chicago diner in 1993. The seven victims’ bodies were discovered the next day in the restaurant's walk-in cooler and freezer.
The case went unsolved until 2002, when Degorski and Luna were arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison. But shortly after arriving in Cook County prison in 2002, Degorski was allegedly beaten by prison guard Thomas Wilson in an unprovoked attack, Degorski’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean said.
Degorski suffered facial fractures and metal plates had to be surgically inserted into his face.
Degorski sued Wilson, now 50, for excessive use of force in 2004, but the civil case was put on hold until his murder case was concluded in 2009. A federal jury Friday agreed with Degorski after a three-day trial that Wilson had used excessive force and awarded punitive damages.
Wilson claimed that Degorski lunged at him and that he acted in self-defense. Wilson was acquitted by a Cook County circuit judge in 2003 of aggravated battery and official misconduct charges in connection to the alleged attack on Degorski.
“We were unable to expose Mr. Degorski for what he is: brutal and vicious," Wilson’s attorney, John Winters Jr., told ABC News. "It was execution-style murders. This guy went in with the intent to murder, not to rob.
"I’m a little mortified by this. I will represent any of the victims, I will represent them for no fee to make sure this guy does not get a dime,” Winters added.
Bonjean, Degorski’s lawyer, told ABC News today, “I was very moved. It gave me a lot of hope that this jury had acted so consistently following the law and accepting the principle that regardless of your status in society, you are entitled to be free of unjustified violence at the hands of the government and people with power and the duty to protect you.”
The jury was told that Degorski had been convicted of murder, but not given specifics.
“They were not given details about the crime,” Bonjean said. “The law is very settled about that, it’s not relevant to any issue, the job of the jury is to listen to the facts.”
Winters disagreed, arguing that knowledge of Degorski’s exact identity was critical to his client Wilson’s state of mind when he struck Degorski. “None of this was ever explained to the jury, the ruling of the court is that there were seven individuals who were brutally murdered and [the jury] never knew that."
Family members of victims expressed outrage over the decision to local media.
“The first thought is it kind of feels like a slap in the face,” Dana Sampson, whose parents, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, owned the restaurant and were shot to death in the attack, told the Chicago Tribune.
“If broken bones are worth a half-million, then how much are seven lives worth? This just doesn’t feel right,” Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt’s sister, said, according to The Associated Press.
Bonjean says she has sympathy for the families but says that the case is not about Degorski’s criminal responsibility for past actions, but about constitutional rights.
“I understand why [the victims’ families] are upset, but at the end of the day [Degorski] is being punished for the crime he was convicted of,” Bonjean said. “If we accept that there is a sliding scale on whose constitutional rights should be protected and whose should not, we are going down a scary path.”
It is unclear just how much of the nearly half-million dollars Degorski will wind up seeing. Half of the money will be paid by Cook county, and the other half by Thomas Wilson.
According to Bonjean, the Illinois department of corrections could seek to use part of the payout to house Degorski. Family members of the victims could also file suit to receive part of the money. Inmates are also typically barred from spending more than a few hundred dollars a month in state prisons.
“We have no idea what if anything he will see. There are going to be many challenges to the money, that was anticipated and [Degorski] knew this as well,” Bonjean said. “I don’t think it’s about the money for James Degorski.”
Winters says he wishes this case hadn’t been used to, as he believes, make a point about civil rights.
“They can make their point on civil rights on other cases,” Winters said. “There is a time and place for everything, when you make that point in light of the fact that these people have been brutally murdered, you are thumbing your noses at the families, you are hurting those victims again, no reason to do it.”