In a story that highlights the ethical struggle between an obdurate interpretation of right and wrong, and what’s right as defined by a person’s moral code, a convicted, imprisoned killer won out – big time – on the former, pocketing nearly half a million dollars in a civil suit.
According to the Chicago Tribune on March 8, a federal jury awarded James Eric Degorski, 41, “a man serving a life-sentence for the 1993 massacre of seven workers at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant,” $451,000 in a civil rights lawsuit against a former prison guard who beat him back in 2002.
Degorski and an accomplice were convicted of killing seven individuals – two restaurant owners and five employees – during a 1993 botched robbery attempt. After shooting and stabbing their victims to death, the men shoved the bodies into the restaurant's walk-in cooler.
Degorski was sentenced in 2002 to life in prison, but shortly after arriving at Cook County prison, he was allegedly beaten so severely by guard Thomas Wilson that he needed metal plates to be surgically implanted into his face to repair the broken bones.
The attack was “unprovoked,” Degorski’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean said, adding that it appears the guard took it upon himself to render some “vigilante justice” on Degorski’s face.
After a 3-day trial, a jury agreed, awarding punitive damages because it was determined Wilson used “excessive force.”
“The system effectively took the shackles on Mr. Degorski and hid what he really is, and put the shackles on my client,” Bonjean said. “I was very moved. It gave me a lot of hope that this jury had acted so consistently following the law and accepting the principle that regardless of your status in society, you are entitled to be free of unjustified violence at the hands of the government and people with power and the duty to protect you.”
The jury was evidently told that Degorski had been convicted of murder, but they were not given any specific details, so as to not color their decision.
“They were not given details about the crime,” Bonjean said. “The law is very settled about that, it’s not relevant to any issue, the job of the jury is to listen to the facts.”
The family of Degorski’s victims were outraged at the decision.
“The first thought is it kind of feels like a slap in the face,” Dana Sampson, whose parents, Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, owned the restaurant and were killed in the attack.
“If broken bones are worth a half-million, then how much are seven lives worth? This just doesn’t feel right,” Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt’s sister, said.
Bonjean said she completely understands the family’s feelings, which are warranted, but stressed the need to differentiate between emotions and the law.
“I understand why [the victims’ families] are upset, but at the end of the day [Degorski] is being punished for the crime he was convicted of,” Bonjean said. “If we accept that there is a sliding scale on whose constitutional rights should be protected and whose should not, we are going down a scary path.”
It remains to be seen how much, if any, of the settlement Degorski will actually see or be allowed to use while in jail.