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updated: 9/8/2016 4:58 PM

Degorski seeks new hearing in Brown's Chicken mass murder

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  • James Degorski

    James Degorski

  • Juan Luna

    Juan Luna

 
 

One of the two men found guilty in the 1993 Brown's Chicken mass murder is asking a court to overturn his conviction and life sentence, claiming a key prosecution witness lied to jurors for reward money and new evidence exonerates him.

James Degorski was convicted in 2009 of killing seven workers at the Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta. His petition claims jurors were never told his ex-girlfriend, Anne Lockett, was promised half a $100,000 reward in exchange for her testimony against him.

Restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis were shot to death during a robbery in early January 1993.

In 2002, Lockett came forward and told authorities Degorski had confessed to her years earlier. She said she did not report the confession earlier because she feared for her life.

She also implicated Degorski's friend Juan Luna. DNA testing later tied Luna to a partially eaten piece of chicken kept in evidence for years. Luna was convicted in 2007 and also sentenced to life in prison.

Degorski's petition, filed in Cook County court last month by attorney Jennifer Bonjean, paints Lockett as a psychologically fragile opportunist "prone to dishonesty" and claims she implicated another ex-boyfriend in the murders.

"Lockett's testimony was the linchpin to the case, yet the jury was never given the tools to evaluate the veracity of her testimony," Bonjean wrote in the petition.

During trial, Lockett claimed Degorski called her the night of the murders and told her to watch the news because he had done something "big." Lockett was hospitalized at the time after a suicide attempt days earlier. A fellow patient at the Des Plaines hospital who claims she was Lockett's roommate at the time provided an affidavit in Degorski's petition that disputes whether Lockett could receive phone calls or watch television.

Artist Verna Saddock's rendering of Anne Lockett, a key prosecution witness in the Brown's Chicken murder trial, as she testified in Juan Luna's 2007 trial.
Artist Verna Saddock's rendering of Anne Lockett, a key prosecution witness in the Brown's Chicken murder trial, as she testified in Juan Luna's 2007 trial. -

Lockett, now married and living downstate, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Also included in the 88-page filing is an affidavit from a man named Richard Bilik, who states he also was a patient with Lockett at the time of the murders.

Bilik's affidavit claims he and Lockett dated for a time after the Brown's murders. After they broke up, he states, Lockett asked him if he had committed the murders. Shortly thereafter, Bilik said, he was questioned numerous times by police in connection with the case.

Bilik is serving a 15-year prison sentence for a 2012 arson conviction.

In the petition, Bonjean cites numerous occasions when she believes Degorski was "denied effective" legal counsel during his trial and had his constitutional rights violated. The petition also states that no physical evidence found at the crime scene links Degorski to the murders.

She claims Degorski was denied due process when jurors weren't informed Lockett had been promised reward money and argues his rights were violated when he was involuntarily transported to Illinois after his arrest in Indianapolis. The petition also alleges that incriminating statements he made were coerced by police.

Prosecutors have yet to file a response to Degorski's request.

Degorski has maintained his innocence since his arrest. He also won a lawsuit against Cook County and a now-former jail guard who punched him on the day he was jailed in 2002 on the murder charges. A federal jury awarded Degorski $451,000 after the punch broke bones in his face. The guard was acquitted in criminal court, but lost his job after a merit board determined he acted inappropriately.

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