Why an appellate court denied Degorski's latest bid for new trial in Brown's Chicken murders

  • James Degorski

    James Degorski

  • Juan Luna

    Juan Luna

  • Yellow crime scene tape and police vehicles surround the Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine on Jan. 9, 1993, a day after the owners and five employees were discovered murdered inside.

    Yellow crime scene tape and police vehicles surround the Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine on Jan. 9, 1993, a day after the owners and five employees were discovered murdered inside. Daily Herald file photo, 1993

  • A sketch shows witness Anne Lockett testifying during one of the trials of two men charged with the 1993 Palatine Brown's Chicken murders.

    A sketch shows witness Anne Lockett testifying during one of the trials of two men charged with the 1993 Palatine Brown's Chicken murders. Artist's rendering by Verna Saddock

 
Posted6/17/2022 5:10 AM

A witness who provided police with the break they needed to arrest two men in the 1993 Brown's Chicken murders in Palatine stood to gain a six-figure reward for her tip -- something the jury that convicted one of those suspects never learned at trial.

Could that information have led jurors to a different verdict for James Degorski?

 

No chance, a state appeals court said this week, as it blocked Degorski's bid for a new trial in the infamous slayings.

Degorski, who has long maintained his innocence, and co-defendant Juan Luna are both serving life sentences for the Jan. 8, 1993, killings of restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, and employees Michael Castro, Rico Solis, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes and Marcus Nellsen.

In his latest petition for a retrial, Degorski claims prosecutors withheld information that his ex-girlfriend, Anne Lockett, was eligible for a $100,000 reward when she came forward in 2002 and told investigators that he had confessed to her years earlier.

Lockett testified at trial that Degorski called her the night of the murders and told her to watch the news because he had done something "big."

Degorski argued that Lockett -- who ultimately received $49,000 for her information -- had a financial incentive to implicate him, and jurors should have known that. He also said another former boyfriend signed an affidavit indicating Lockett was "willing to implicate anyone" for the reward.

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And, Degorski claims, his attorney's failure to bring all that to the jury's attention shows he had an ineffective legal defense.

In its unanimous decision, the appellate court agreed with Degorski -- the information about Lockett and the reward should have been provided to his defense and might have caused jurors to question her testimony.

However, the court ruled, there's no reason to believe any of that would have changed the trial's outcome. They note that Degorski also made incriminating statements to three other witnesses -- including a police officer and a prosecutor.

"Degorski has not identified, and we cannot think of, a reason the damage to Lockett's credibility caused by her monetary motive to testify would impact the credibility of the remaining confessions," Justice Michael B. Hyman wrote. "Our confidence in Lockett's testimony is shaken, but not our confidence in the verdict."

The court also rejected Degorski's claims that his attorney prevented him from testifying in his own defense and that his lawyer's failure to challenge DNA evidence putting Luna at the crime scene damaged his case.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We do not agree with any of Degorski's arguments," Hyman wrote. "A common theme runs through our decision: Degorski has failed, either as a matter of law or due to insufficient factual support, to make a substantial showing that the claimed errors -- if they are errors -- impacted the outcome of his trial."

Degorski, now 49 years old and serving his sentence at the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center, can ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review this week's appellate court ruling.

An unexpected gift

In most places, when you get pulled over for an equipment violation such as a broken taillight or loud muffler, you wind up with a costly citation -- or a stern warning, if you're lucky -- on top of what might be an expensive repair.

Police in Lake Zurich are taking a different approach starting this week, teaming up with a national auto parts retailer to hand out $25 gift cards instead of tickets.

Lake Zurich is the second police department in Illinois -- following South suburban Homewood -- to partner with Raleigh, North Carolina-based Advance Auto Parts on the program that aims to keep vehicles on the roads in safe condition.

Lake Zurich police reached out to the company after an officer learned about a similar arrangement with a law enforcement agency in Minnesota.

Advance Auto gave the department $1,500 in gift cards this week to start what the officials hope is a long-term partnership.

"The goal is making people's vehicles safe and legal," Sgt. Colin Gaffney said. "And (it's) a method where it can be a little less punitive. This lets us quite literally give them a means to help them pay for it and ultimately gets us to the same goal, and maybe even gets us there easier, without a fine on top of the repair costs."

Besides those with violations, Gaffney said officers can also offer gift cards to drivers whose vehicles are disabled because of a dead battery or some other equipment problem.

Sextortion warning

Sextortion schemes targeting teenage boys are on the rise, the FBI Chicago Field Office warned Thursday

The schemes involve adults posing as girls on social media and coercing boys -- usually 14 to 17 years old -- to produce sexual images and videos. The adult then extorts money from a victim by threatening to post the images online, authorities say.

"To make the victimization stop, children typically have to come forward to someone -- normally a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement," the FBI said. "The embarrassment children feel from the activity they were forced to engage in is what typically prevents them from coming forward."

The FBI's internet Crimes Complaint Center received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints last year, with victims reporting losses of more than $13.6 million.

Coercion of a child by an adult to produce what is considered child sexual abuse material is a crime that carries heavy penalties, up to a life sentence.

Some tips from the FBI on how to stay safe:

• Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you or your children.

• Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.

• Be suspicious if you meet someone on a game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.

• Encourage your children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.

If you believe you or someone you know is the victim of sextortion contact your local FBI field office (contact information can be found at www.fbi.gov), the FBI's internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-the-lost or Cybertipline.org).

• Do you have a tip or a comment? Email us at copsandcrime@dailyherald.com.

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