Brown's Chicken victim's family unhappy as killer wins $451,000

A federal jury has awarded nearly $500,000 to one of the two men convicted in the Brown's Chicken massacre through a civil rights lawsuit filed against a former jailer.

James Degorski, 41, was convicted along with Juan Luna of killing seven people at the Palatine restaurant in 1993. Arrested in 2002, Degorski alleged he was beaten, unprovoked, by a former guard shortly after taken into custody.

The former guard, Thomas Wilson, was acquitted in a criminal trial but lost his job in 2005 when a county merit board determined he had acted inappropriately.

Some of the victims' families expressed unhappiness with the verdict.

"I'd like to thank the prison guard for beating Degorski," said Manny Castro, whose 16-year-old son, Michael Castro, was killed while working at the restaurant as a cook. "I'm not saying it was right, but I'd like to thank him for doing it."

Degorski attorney Jennifer Bonjean called the verdict "a very good day for civil rights."

"Regardless of your status in this society, you are entitled to be free of violence from people in power," she said. "It's a fundamental concept."

Wilson's attorney, John Winters Jr., said the jury awarded Degorski $225,000 in compensatory damages that would be paid by Cook County and $226,000 in punitive damages that his client would be responsible for paying.

Winters said Wilson has been unemployed since being ousted from his jail job and currently is on disability.

"The fact that punitive damages were awarded sends a clear message that (the jury) found (Wilson's) conduct reprehensible," Bonjean said.

Jurors at the four-day trial that ended Friday were told Degorski was a murderer, but they were unaware he was responsible for the murders of the seven people at the restaurant 21 years ago. Winters believes if jurors were armed with the knowledge of the mass murders, it would have made Degorski's credibility a bigger issue.

"I'm somewhat mortified by the results," Winters said.

Wilson argued that he punched Degorski in self-defense. Degorski's lawsuit contends Wilson attacked him outside his cell and beat him so severely that he suffered facial fractures and eyesight damage.

Bonjean said both sides were hindered by what the jury was allowed to know about the respective clients. Jurors weren't told that Wilson had been criminally prosecuted or that he had been fired.

"It's a silly argument to say a jury wouldn't believe Degorski if they knew he was a murderer of seven people or one person," Bonjean said. "Wilson's story was not only rebutted by Degorski but the evidence of the fact that he didn't file a single report about the incident."

Bonjean said Wilson's former co-workers testified that the correctional officer wasn't supposed to be at Degorski's cell when the assault took place. She added that the attack was premeditated because Wilson put on leather gloves before punching Degorski.

It's unclear how much money Degorski will see of the $451,000 jury award, Winters said. He is willing to volunteer his services for free to help victims' families seek some of that money.

"I'm willing to do whatever I can to help any family member get that money back," Winters said.

Epifania Castro, Michael Castro's mother, said she believes the money should be reimbursed to taxpayers or to victims' families.

"We feel he doesn't deserve it," she said. "He killed seven people and he was just beaten."

Another guard named in the suit, Chester Koch, was found not guilty of allowing the beating to occur. And allegations against former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan were dropped, Winters said.

Degorski filed the lawsuit in 2004, but it was halted while he and Luna went on trial for murder. Luna was convicted in 2007 and Degorski in 2009. Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Degorski is serving his sentence at the Menard Correctional Center south of St. Louis.

Though the murders occurred in 1993, it wasn't until 2002 that the Fremd High School graduates were linked to the crime when Degorski's ex-girlfriend implicated him and Luna in the murders. The connection was fortified by investigators through the use of updated DNA testing that wasn't available at the time of the crime. Authorities were able to connect DNA from one of the men to a partially eaten piece of chicken taken from the crime scene at the time of the murders.

Bonjean said Degorski maintains his innocence.

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