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Families' reactions reflect split views of justice
By Erin Holmes and Tara Malone | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/18/2007

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Some had hoped desperately for this.

Others had wished publicly for Juan Luna's death, their eyes watering over when jurors said no.

But the grief-stricken families of the seven people brutally slain in a Palatine restaurant 14 years ago agree on this: Thursday's decision to spare the life of the man who did it won't take their pain away. And it cannot give them back the people they now live without.

"This is what we wanted to happen," Epifania Castro, the mother of victim Michael Castro, said of the verdict, which will put Luna in prison for the rest of his natural life with no chance of parole. "Justice was served. But there's no celebration."

Castro, a staunch Catholic who joined Luna's family in an anti-death penalty vigil earlier this week, acknowledged that some people -- some like her, who have lived through more than a decade of pain -- will be greatly disappointed.

Javier Maldonado, who was just 10 when his father, Guadalupe, was murdered at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta, is among them. Standing outside the courtroom, he said in Spanish that Luna's punishment is simply, horribly, "not just." He wanted the death penalty for Luna, and he explained why:

The Maldonado boys grew up near their father's killer in a Palatine apartment complex. A photo from Javier's third birthday shows a young Luna in the crowd.

That, Javier Maldonado said, sharpens the pain. "I believe he recognized my father when he killed him," he said.

Jurors deliberated about two hours Thursday before handing down Luna's punishment, a verdict that -- unlike last week's emotional conviction -- yielded a relatively silent and solemn courtroom. The Lunas, their heads bowed as if in prayer, wept. A sister of Rico Solis, a 17-year-old victim who'd dreamed of being in the military like his grandpa, nervously tapped her hand against her leg as the judge read the jurors' decision.

"He got lucky again," Jade Solis, one of Rico's sisters, said afterward, referring to how Luna lived free for nearly a decade before being arrested and charged five years ago.

"My brother begged for mercy, and he didn't get it," she said.

The victims' families, united in grief 14 years ago and bound together again this spring by a weeks-long trial, have been divided on the punishment.

The Maldonados, the Solis sisters and Diane Clayton, the mother of victim Marcus Nellsen -- a former Navy cook working his way up the Brown's management track -- had supported capital punishment for Luna.

The Castros, as well as the daughters of slain Brown's owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt and the brothers of employee Thomas Mennes, had hoped for the life in prison that awaits Luna now.

Several say they've grappled with their stance for years.

On Thursday, all emerged from the courtroom awash in a mixture of shock, tears and resolve, some staring blankly ahead and others openly acknowledging their anger.

"I have never been pro-death penalty, but for the first time in my life, I went away hoping he'd get death," said Ann Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt's sister, "and I hate myself for it."

She criticized defense attorneys for trivializing the murder; in the course of testimony, they characterized Luna's crime as a mere 44 minutes of life, compared, they told jurors, with 17 million good minutes as a father, son and general family man.

Those 44 minutes, though, took seven lives, victims' families say -- lives they so easily remember, grief-stricken even now.

"I was for the death sentence at first," Robert Mennes, Thomas' older brother, said Thursday, openly weeping, "but ... I think it's too easy. Let him live with what he did."

Jennifer Shilling, the eldest Ehlenfeldt daughter and a Wisconsin state representative who has opposed the death penalty both politically and personally, read from a statement, saying she and her two sisters support the jury's decision. But they also hoped that Luna and his family someday will acknowledge his role in the murder.

"It is an insult to us" that Luna continues to say he is innocent, Shilling said.

Yet "we respect the decision of the jury. His life has been spared," she continued, her voice loud and clear, saying her parents' killer now will spend the rest of his life in a prison where "he will only know the sterile routine of a convicted felon."

That's not good enough for Clayton.

Sitting in a wheelchair, her body racked by the emotional and sometimes gruesome trial, she let the tears fall down her cheeks as she spoke to reporters Thursday afternoon.

"This cannot be justice," she said, her voice wavering. "I don't know how I feel right now. I just know that justice was not done. My son deserves better than this."

Clayton acknowledged putting Luna, 33, to death would not bring back her son, "but that (the death penalty) is what my son got," she said. "That's what six other people got."

Thursday's decision marked an emotional end to several days of testimony showing conflicting portraits of Luna, as well as the impact of the murders. The jury found Luna found guilty last week and then on Tuesday determined he was eligible for the death sentence.

Victims' family members took the stand, telling heart-wrenching stories about the people missing from their lives: the dad who never was able to walk down the aisle on his daughters' wedding days, the fun-loving twin brother who'd ride his rickety bike around town.

Some of Luna's family also testified on his behalf; his 10-year-old son spoke in an emotional, taped statement.

When the verdict was finally read, Luna embraced his attorney.

Miles away in their Palatine home, the Castros -- kept out of court Thursday because Manny Castro had fallen ill -- got word by telephone.

Epifania Castro shook when they heard the news.

In the end, she said, the Lord will be Luna's real judge.

"This victory is for justice. Not for our side," Manny Castro said in an earlier interview after last week's conviction. "On the victims' side, there is no victory. We're glad the killer was caught and put to justice. But victory -- never. There is no victory."