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Court Overturns Landmark Murder Convictions in Job-Related Death

January 20, 1990

CHICAGO (AP) _ Three former executives were wrongly convicted of murder and other charges in the death of an employee who suffered cyanide poisoning on the job, the Illinois appellate court ruled Friday.

The 1985 case, believed to be the first in which corporate officials were convicted of murder in a job-related death, was sent back to Cook County Circuit Court.

Cook County State’s Attorney Cecil Partee said he would appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, who prosecuted the case as Cook County state’s attorney, called the decision unfortunate and said he hoped the ruling would be appealed.

The appellate court overturned the 1985 Cook County Circuit Court convictions of three top officials of Film Recovery Systems Inc., based in Elk Grove Village, a plant prosecutors likened to a ″huge gas chamber.″

The case stemmed from the 1983 death of Stefan Golab, 61, a Polish immigrant who worked at the plant where cyanide was used to recover silver from used X-ray film. He collapsed at work after complaining of dizziness and nausea. His death was attributed to cyanide poisoning.

The appellate court ruled the convictions on charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct were ″irreconcileable″ because of the different mental states required for such findings, said defense attorney Elliot Samuels.

He said a murder conviction required a determination of a deliberate state of mind, while a finding of reckless conduct required determining a state of mind ″somewhere between negligence and indifference ... conscious disregard of serious risk.″

The appeals court overturned the convictions of the defunct company’s former president, Steven J. O’Neil, plant manager Charles Kirschbaum and foreman Daniel Rodriguez.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, who prosecuted the case as Cook County state’s attorney, called the decision unfortunate.

″The earlier decision was precedent-setting nationally in terms of the protection that it gave to working men and women,″ said Daley’s spokeswoman, Avis LaVelle.

″Those people knew full well they were exposing their workers to lethal levels of cyanide gas,″ said attorney David Vladeck with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the Washington, D.C.-based litigation wing of Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy organization.

″I would hope prosecutors would appeal this decision if they can,″ Vladeck said.

Five people originally were charged. Gerald Pett, a Film Recovery vice president and manager, was acquitted.

A fifth defendant, Utah businessman and former Film Recovery vice president Michael MacKay, has been the subject of three unsuccessful extradition requests by Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson. Utah officials said they questioned whether he could receive a fair trial.

Witnesses testified at the Circuit Court trial that Film Recovery workers weren’t told they were working with cyanide or that compounds used at the plant could be harmful.

Prosecutors also said the plant was manned largely by illegal Polish and Hispanic immigrants, most of whom spoke or read very little English. Some employees were instructed to burn off skull-and-crossbones labels on containers of cyanide, witnesses testified.

The defense said the three officials were responsible managers, who didn’t have any idea conditions were dangerous and who worked at the plant themselves. They also said the plant was as safe as any other engaged in similar operations.

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