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Convicted killer in fast-food massacre is awarded $415K in suit against jail guard; will he collect?

Posted Mar 10, 2014 8:33 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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An Illinois inmate convicted in the 1993 murders of seven workers at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant has been awarded $451,000 in a civil suit against a jail guard.

James Degorski is serving a life sentence for the murders. In his suit, he claimed Cook County sheriff’s deputy Thomas Wilson beat him soon after he arrived in jail in 2002, report the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Herald. Degorski had surgery afterward to repair facial fractures.

Wilson had claimed self-defense and was acquitted of charges related to the beating, the Tribune says. He was eventually fired from his job, however.

Jurors awarded Degorksi $225,000 in compensatory damages and $226,000 in punitive damages. The jurors were told that Degorski was a convicted murderer, but they did not learn any details of the crime.

Degorski’s lawyer in the civil suit, Jennifer Bonjean, told the Tribune that Degorski hired her after his first lawyer died and he had trouble finding someone to represent him. “Not many people were signing up for the Brown’s Chicken murderer’s civil rights case,” Bonjean told the Tribune.

Bonjean told the Tribune the award “stands to the proposition that our constitutional rights are not on a sliding scale for some people.” In an interview with the Daily Herald, she said the verdict was “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.

Bonjean said it’s unclear whether Degorski will see any of the money. The Illinois Department of Corrections may be entitled to part of it, she said, and the victims’ families may also sue for a share. Lawyers for the Cook County Sheriff’s office told the Sun-Times that Illinois can seek all but $15,000 of Degorski’s award.

In what the Sun-Times calls “another unusual twist,” the lawyer who represented the sheriff’s deputy in the civil suit said he would be willing to represent any relatives of the victims seeking a share of the award. “I cannot comprehend James Degorski taking one red cent,” said the lawyer, John Winters Jr.

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