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What it was like to be a Brown's juror
No outside contact, no TV, no news -- just hours of talking, deciding
By Tara Malone and Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/20/2007

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Serving as a juror on one of the most highly publicized cases in the Chicago area isn't as glamorous as it may sound.

Justice comes before comfort.

Twelve panelists tapped to stand in judgment of the Brown's Chicken murders learned that early in the five-week trial that ended Thursday.

"None of us wanted to be there, obviously, that long," said Timothy Beltran, a mortgage specialist who lives with his parents in Westchester. "We were a tight-knit jury. … But I wouldn't want to do it again."

The group spent four days sequestered while deciding the case against Juan Luna, one of two men accused of slaying seven people in a Palatine restaurant 14 years ago.

The court-ordered seclusion, which is exercised at the judge's discretion, blindsided some members initially. They came to court in the morning to hear closing arguments and then were told they wouldn't be going home that night.

Cook County sheriff's deputies called their families to inform them of the sequestration and relay any personal messages. The deputies also were available to pick up any necessary medical prescriptions.

Though a few jurors had anticipated sequestration, most had not packed overnight bags. They were forced to wear the same clothes two days in a row as they deliberated in a stuffy jury room with an view of Chicago skyline.

"We all just made the best of it," said the 22-year-old Beltran, the panel's youngest member.

Jurors stayed in a nondescript chain hotel overlooking a highway in the Western suburbs.

They bunked in pairs, sharing rooms stripped of working phones and televisions. There were no radios or newspapers to follow the Bulls' playoff run.

They couldn't call their spouses or wish their kids good night. At least one juror with a sick child worried constantly about things at home.

"People were breaking down," juror John Polishak said. "They were saying, 'I just want to see my kids.' "

The group ordered hotel meals through the deputies charged with shielding them from any outside influence, even that of a cafe waitress. And to prevent contact with a hotel clerk, deputies delivered the jurors' room keys.

The Brown's Chicken panel spent days cloistered together, often chatting until midnight in the hotel lounge. Barred from venturing out or speaking with others, there was little else for them to do.

"If you brought a book with you, you could read; otherwise you were screwed," Polishak said of the sequestration. "There's a sheriff in the hallways watching to make sure we didn't leave our rooms and nobody went into our rooms. They were always watching."

The veil of protection ensures hotel workers don't connect the 12 people in the hotel lounge with the criminal trial splashed across newspapers and nightly broadcasts.

"When they come," hotel manager Adriana Arias said, "we don't know what they are here for."

Yet the jurors knew exactly what led them to that suburban hotel.

The enormity of their role became clear the moment they stepped into the Cook County courthouse last March. The group was selected from a pool of 150 people for the sensational trial in the 14-year-old crime.

The daily chats, raffles and potluck lunches made friends of 12 strangers and helped ease the courtroom tension as they decided Luna's fate.

"We were such a mixed group from all different sides of the city, from all different kinds of upbringings … and we managed to band together and become fast friends," panelist Stephen Koch, 26, said outside his Schaumburg home.

Among them were nine men and three women drawn from their lives across the Chicago region. Six were minorities. At least one was an immigrant -- as is Luna, who left Mexico as a child and became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

The panel spent five weeks listening to grueling testimony at the historic Cook County courthouse, the building commonly referred to as "the place where mothers go to cry." In addition to gruesome crime scene photos, they endured mind-numbing testimony about statistics, DNA research and the history of handprint forensics.

"It was sometimes boring," said juror Edward Stewart, a self-described Court TV fan.

At least two jurors initially were undecided on Luna's guilt.

Another vote taken with a show of hands two hours into the deliberations shifted the split to 11-1, Polishak, a Chicago plumber, told the Daily Herald. Relying on the camaraderie developed during the past five weeks, they shared their views openly. No secret votes were taken.

"It was quiet in there. We just went over the evidence," Polishak said. "He or she just needed time."

There were no tears or angry words inside the jury room, jurors said. Despite a well-organized foreman, Beltran said members occasionally resorted to shouting to make their views heard.

In the end, it was nearly 12 hours before a unanimous guilty verdict was reached.

The panelist who took an extra six hours to decide Luna's guilt wept openly in court as the verdict was read. The juror, a young mother who once worked at a chicken restaurant in Elgin, also cast the sole vote that spared Luna's life Thursday.

Illinois law requires a unanimous decision before a person may be sentenced to death.

The panel entered the jury room at 2:20 p.m. and sat in silence for 15 minutes before taking their normal hand vote. The holdout juror, 28, again indicated she wouldn't approve capital punishment for Luna, though several jurors said she struggled to articulate her position.

She told the panel she thought Luna could be rehabilitated and lead a productive life in prison. She also mentioned Luna's 10-year-old son, Brian, who testified via videotape during the sentencing phase and talked about his wish to hug his father again.

"If I remember right, those are the two things this person focused on," Polishak said.

The night before closing arguments, the panel had made a pact to honor everyone's opinions. Once the juror made her position clear, they returned a decision to spare Luna's life two hours later. The 11 others made no attempt to sway her, a move experts say possibly eased their own consciences and definitely speaks to the panel's integrity.

"It's a credit to this jury that they didn't try to convince the juror to do something she didn't believe in," said Andrea Lyon, director of the DePaul University Center for Justice in Capital Cases. "It sounds as if they really respected one another."

Though the panelists did not always agree, all left the courthouse bound by the five weeks they spent together. Some plan to stay connected and exchanged e-mail addresses.

Others said as friendly as the group was, they need to separate themselves from the emotion of the trial.

"I just want to distance myself from the case as long as I can," Beltran said.

At least three jurors said they will follow the trial of Jim Degorski, Luna's high school friend who stands accused as an accomplice. Degorski has pleaded innocent and awaits a t.

"I'd really like to be on the jury, see the other half of it," juror Sherwood Brown said of the Degorski case.

Yet as he returned to his Chicago home Thursday for the first time in four days, Brown said: "I am kind of glad it's over."