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Cook County pays Brown's Chicken killer; prison system wants a cut

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Cook County has paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars in compensatory damages to a man sentenced to life behind bars for the murder of seven Brown’s Chicken employees, his lawyer said Tuesday. But it’s still unclear how much of that money James Degorski will get to keep after the legal wrangling is over. In 2004, Degorski sued the county over injuries he suffered after a Cook County Jail correctional officer punched him in the face in 2002. The attack came on the same day he entered the Cook County Jail on murder charges in the 1993 killings in Palatine. The guard put on leather gloves and struck Degorski, fracturing bones in his face and knocking him out. Degorski underwent surgery to install plates in his face, said his attorney, Jennifer Bonjean. “Much of his face is numb,” she said. The guard, Thomas Wilson, was fired. In March, a federal jury awarded Degorski $225,000 in compensatory damages and $226,000 in punitive damages. The county paid the compensatory damages last week, Bonjean said. The Illinois Department of Corrections is seeking to recover about $100,000 of those damages for Degorski’s upkeep, she said. “It’s not at all unusual for us to seek reimbursement for incarceration costs for those who have the means to pay,” said Tom Shaer, the spokesman for the prison system. In July, Judge Robert Dow Jr. reduced the punitive damages to $125,000, which Wilson is personally required to pay. Dow called the beating “unprovoked” and “vicious.” In a deposition, Wilson said he was unemployed. But Bonjean said she’ll go after his assets anyway. “If he has any assets, I will place liens on that property,” she said. “I will garnish his wages — anything to collect on every penny that is owed.” Bonjean, meanwhile, is embroiled in a fight with Cook County to recover about $200,000 in legal fees she says her firm is owed. Degorski doesn’t have control over the damages that have been paid, Bonjean said. Her law firm is holding the money in an account and will receive a cut for working on the case, she said. Bonjean said she will contest the Department of Corrections’ lien on the compensatory damages. Still looming is the possibility that victims’ families might sue Degorski for a portion of his damages. “It seems quite unjust that a man who committed some of the most brutal murders of seven people who pled for their lives should receive a dime,” said Wilson’s attorney, John Winters Jr. “We have already told the families of the victims that we will represent them for nothing in filing a suit against Mr. Degorski to make sure no funds go to him.” Bonjean said she isn’t aware of victims’ families filing any lawsuits against Degorski. Bonjean said her client continues to maintain his innocence and hasn’t exhausted his post-conviction appeals. If the victims’ families sue, that would allow Degorski to depose his co-defendant, Juan Luna, and others to try to prove his innocence, Bonjean said. Luna is serving a life sentence, too. “The opportunity to engage in discovery would be very attractive, I think,” Bonjean said. “This was never about the money . . . He will certainly get some money. But how much is a big question mark.”


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