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Columnist
Thoughtfulness saved life of man who didn't think of others
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/18/2007

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It's not so easy to snuff out a life -- when you think about it.

After thinking about it for two hours in a room by themselves, a jury of 12 people from different walks of life couldn't bring themselves to give the order to kill Juan Luna.

Just as we live in a society that can't agree on the death penalty in the abstract, these jurors could not reach agreement on a life-and-death question in the concrete. Not even the grieving relatives of the victims could reach a consensus on whether Luna should live or die.

In the end, it appears only one member of the jury didn't want to see Luna die for his crimes. Because of that one person, Luna will live out his days in prison. One person's decision can make a world of difference in dozens of lives, just as Luna's decision that January night did.

Luna was a teenager when he strolled into a Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine on Jan. 8, 1993, with malice on his mind and fistfuls of bullets in his pockets. Inside that restaurant with terrified people pleading for their lives, there were no hours of thoughtful deliberation. Luna said he got caught up "in the moment" as he took part in the murder of seven captives: Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50; his wife, Lynn, 49; high school students Rico Solis, 17, and Michael Castro, 16; Guadalupe Maldonado, 46, a father of three; Thomas Mennes, 32, who had a twin brother; and ex-Navy cook Marcus Nellsen, 31, who had plans to marry.

Their deaths were executions. Those lives ended with a barrage of bullets. All were shot in the head. In a sickening, ghastly act that put a signature on the crime, Luna confessed to slashing the throat of Lynn Ehlenfeldt.

The Ehlenfeldts' grown children and members of the Castro family -- in a compassionate act that will define them as far more than grieving survivors -- spoke out publicly about how they didn't want society to kill the man who brought so much sorrow and pain to their lives. They overcame the vengeful instinct for revenge.

Luna's parents, his siblings, his wife and his young son benefit from the realization of that message. They will get the chance to visit their loved one in prison, which is a far better fate than the victims' families, whose visits are one-way moments with photographs, memories and burial plots.

In bestowing mercy to a man who didn't grant mercy to his victims, the jury sends a message so powerful in its goodness.

Luna got away with murder for 14 years. Now, he is 33, the same age as the Bible says Jesus Christ was at his execution.

The Bible, as it does with most things, has something to say about the death penalty. Readers can point to passages where God proclaims, "Thou shalt not kill" or "Turn the other cheek" as proof that executing prisoners is immoral. But they also can find justification for the death penalty in Bible passages about "an eye for an eye" or in the death penalties God himself handed down to a multitude of people.

But the first murder in the Bible occurred between the first two people born on this Earth. The book of Genesis says Cain, in a fit of jealousy, butchered his brother, Abel, and lied about it to God. In a move that even the most liberal death penalty opponent would consider a slap on the wrist, God not only didn't execute the murderous Cain. He set him free to start a new life in the land East of Eden, where Cain married and had children. Even more, God warned that anyone who did try to deliver a death penalty upon Cain would be met with a godly vengeance seven times worse.

When first confronted with his brother's murder, Cain asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

It seems as if the jury, or at least a single juror, is Luna's keeper, saving his life when many called for deadly revenge.

That decision came only after considering the life-and-death consequences.

The pity is that this entire tragedy might have been avoided if only Luna had given his "moment" such soul-searching.