MARION - The Herrin man convicted in 1999 of murdering Elizabeth Opatt of Johnston City a year earlier at Hurley's Show Bar has lost an appeal on his conviction and sentencing.

Opatt was a bartender at the club just east of Johnston City. She was reportedly jumped from behind, pushed to the floor and shot in the head with a shotgun, first by James L. Westray and then by co-defendant Keith D. Cook.

Westray first sought to withdraw his guilty plea.

He was charged with four counts of murder stemming from an armed robbery. Westray pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, and the state dismissed the other two counts.

The trial court found there was factual basis for the plea and that the plea was made knowingly and voluntarily. The plea stood. The jury then sentenced Westray to death.

Westray's appeal was dismissed.

Meanwhile, then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentence to natural-life imprisonment.

During post-conviction proceedings, however, it was determined the dismissal of Westray's appeal was incorrect.

The case then went to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon.

Westray claimed he did not inflict injuries upon Opatt and thereby should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

He also asked for a new eligibility hearing on the question of whether he was eligible for the death penalty.

A three-judge panel of justices James Donovan, Bruce Stewart and Melissa Chapman ruled Westray's claims had no merit.

The justices wrote the state "clearly proved that the defendant was eligible for the death penalty and the jury accordingly found him eligible for the death penalty and that the defendant's guilty plea itself did not render him eligible."

Westray also argued that he should be awarded a new sentencing hearing.

The court disagreed.

"The elements for eligibility were set forth in the (jury) instruction and thus the verdict form was neither insufficient nor improper," the justices wrote.

"We affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Williamson County," the justices ruled.

Williamson County State's Attorney Charles Garnati said he was pleased with the ruling.

"The Opatt murder was one of our most horrific murders," Garnati said. "This office will continue to work hard to make sure Mr. Westray never gets out of prison. The Opatt family deserves at least that much." / 351-5805

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