Brown’s Chicken killer unlikely to see more than $15,000 of award, lawyers say

Written By BY ROSALIND ROSSI AND MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporters Posted: 04/11/2014, 06:24am

A man serving a life sentence for the murder of seven Brown’s Chicken workers has won a nearly half-million-dollar jury verdict tied to an alleged jail beating, but he probably won’t see more than $15,000 of it, attorneys said Sunday.

A federal court jury on Friday awarded James Degorski $451,000 in connection with Degorski’s alleged beating by a Cook County Jail guard during Degorski’s first evening in the jail after being charged in the 1993 Brown’s Chicken slayings. Degorski’s fractures required the surgical insertion of two metal plates in his face.

“It’s outrageous — outrageous, giving him that money,’’ the father of one Brown’s Chicken victim said Sunday.

“I’d like to say `thanks’ to the prison guard who beat him. That’s the only way we can get back at him,’’ said Manny Castro, father of Michael Castro, who had worked at the Brown’s Chicken in Palatine for only two months before being shot to death there, along with six coworkers.

Manny Castro, 72, said he is looking for a “good attorney” to represent him in seeking a slice of Degorski’s award in the wrongful death of his 16-year-old son.

“I’d like to have part of that money. I’d like him to pay the families of the seven people he killed,’’ Manny Castro said.

Under Illinois law, the Illinois Department of Corrections can seek to recover all but $15,000 of Degorski’s award for the cost of incarcerating Degorski for the rest of his life, said attorneys Dominick Lanzito and Paul A. O’Grady, who won a dismissal of civil claims against the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in the case.

IDOC “absolutely will pursue’’ such an award “if and when it’s possible,’’ state corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said Sunday.

If victims in the Brown’s Chicken case also file wrongful death claims, any award to them could further diminish Degorski’s $15,000 take, Lanzito said Sunday.

One of Degorski’s attorneys, Jennifer Bonjean, said Sunday she was not surprised the jury award has spurred promises of claims against it — and neither is Degorski.

“I anticipated that,’’ Bonjean said. “People believe they have a claim to it. [Degorski] knew it. This is not surprising.’’

However, Bonjean said, the verdict was “appropriate” and indicated the jury did not believe what she called the “self-defense nonsense” posed by former Cook County Jail correctional officer Thomas Wilson. Wilson was eventually fired over the 2002 incident but acquitted of a separate criminal charge of battery involving it. Wilson’s credibility was damaged at trial by his failure to file a report about the incident, Bonjean contended.

“The Cook County Department of Corrections did not believe [Wilson’s self-defense claim] when they fired him and the jury didn’t believe it,’’ Bonjean said.

In yet another unusual twist, Wilson’s attorney, John Winters Jr., offered free representation to relatives of any Brown’s Chicken victim who wanted to pursue Degorski’s award. Winters said a friend asked him to represent Wilson and after reviewing the case, “I felt Officer Wilson deserved a defense. I cannot comprehend James Degorski taking one red cent.’’

Now that Degorski could be in for a financial windfall, Winters said he would represent the relatives of any victims for free “to make sure this guy does not get his money. I would gladly do that.”

Winters said he was hampered in defending Wilson because the jury heard Degorski had been charged with murder — but not with seven murders, something that he said went to Wilson’s “state of mind” in defending himself.

“There’s a difference between being convicted of murder and killing seven people in the brutal way Mr. Degorski did,’’ Winters said.

“This case was about the credibility of a seven-time killer and a correctional officer,’’ Winters said. “He [Wilson] said Degorski lunged at him and he responded.”

Wilson admitted hitting Degorski twice, but Degorski at trial described many more blows. A doctor testified Degorski’s serious injuries could have been caused by a single blow, Winters said.

“NBA players are elbowed in the nose and they get the same injury,’’ Winters said.

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