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$451,000 Federal Jury Award for Illinois Prisoner Beaten by Jail Guard

$451,000 Federal Jury Award for Illinois Prisoner Beaten by Jail Guard

by Matt Clarke

In March 2014, an Illinois federal jury awarded $451,000 to a pretrial detainee at the Cook County Jail who was severely beaten by a guard a dozen years earlier.

James Degorski, 41, filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging he was assaulted without provocation by Cook County jailer Thomas Wilson in May 2002, just days after he and his accomplice, high school pal Juan Luna, were arrested for the murder of seven people during a botched 1993 robbery of a Brown’s Chicken restaurant. The crime was one of the most notorious unsolved murders in Chicago’s history at the time; both Degorski and Luna were convicted and are currently serving life sentences.

The jailhouse beating broke Degorski’s left cheekbone and orbital socket, permanently damaging his vision. Wilson was later fired by the Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board but did not face criminal charges.

The federal jury awarded Degorski $225,000 in compensatory damages and $226,000 in punitive damages; while the county will indemnify the compensatory damages, the punitive damages will have to be paid by Wilson. However, Degorski may not receive much of the money if the state seizes it to cover the costs of his incarceration, which are estimated to be about $20,000 per year. The punitive damages award was later reduced by the district court to $150,000 on a remittitur motion.

“I think it’s a beautiful day for civil rights when a jury can put aside emotions and say we are all entitled to our civil rights,” said attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who represented Degorski.

But Wilson’s attorney, John Winters, Jr., cried foul. He said the jurors were improperly kept from knowing about the sensational murders that Degorski committed, which was grounds for an appeal.

“Officer Wilson knew who this guy was,” Winters stated. “So when he was attacked, he was going to respond in kind. We believe this was a case of self-defense.”

The jury obviously rejected self-defense as a justification for the beating, since it would have applied regardless of why Degorski was in jail. Furthermore, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow allowed the jurors to know that Degorski had been convicted of murder; he only refused to introduce details of the restaurant killings.

Nonetheless, the relatives of Degorski’s victims complained loudly about the unfairness of the verdict.

“If broken bones are worth a half-million, then how much are seven lives worth? This just doesn’t feel right,” said Ann Ehlenfeldt, whose brother, Richard Ehlenfeldt, was killed at Brown’s Chicken.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Epifania Castro, the mother of Michael Castro, 16, one of the other victims murdered by Luna and Degorski. “He’s a convicted killer. To me, it’s like he was paid to kill. That’s how I feel. He got rewarded and he’s a killer.”

But the victims’ families had not previously sued Degorski. If they had, they might be relieving him of the jury award. Winters vowed to make sure that Degorski never spends any of the money, and offered to represent the families in civil lawsuits at no cost.

“I will try to get every dime back out of Mr. Degorski,” he said.

On November 26, 2014, the district court awarded Degorski $177,570 in attorney fees. His attorney filed a motion to enforce the fee award in March 2015, as Wilson had not sought to enforce the collective bargaining agreement between himself and Cook County as a former county employee, in an effort to have the county pay the attorney fees assessed against him.

The district court entered an order denying the motion on November 2, 2015, holding that “Any attempt to enforce the judgment against (or seek indemnification from) Cook County must be pursued in accordance with the dispute-resolution provisions set forth in the relevant collective bargaining agreement.” Thus, unless circumstances change, Degorski will have to seek payment of the punitive damages and attorney fee award from Wilson personally. See: Degorski v. Wilson, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. l:04-cv-03367.

Additional sources: Associated Press, Chicago Tribune


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Related legal case

Degorski v. Wilson