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Trial 'took a toll on us all'
By Tara Malone, Erin Holmes and Eric Krol
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Published: 5/18/2007

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For five weeks, they've sat in the same chairs and listened to tearful testimony and gruesome details of the bloody case.

They couldn't sleep.

They couldn't see their families for days at a time.

They couldn't live their normal lives.

All the while, they wondered why they were chosen for this.

"None of us really wanted to be on this jury, but unfortunately, we got picked," juror John Polishak said Thursday, after he and the 11 other panelists charged with deciding Juan Luna's fate in the Brown's Chicken murder trial handed down their final decision.

In an 11-1 vote, the jurors spared Luna from death.

The 33-year-old Carpentersville man instead will receive life in prison without parole for his part in the slayings of seven people in the Palatine restaurant 14 years ago.

One juror was all it took.

"We just decided before we left, we were not going to battle each other," juror Sherwood Brown of Chicago said late Thursday. Brown supported the death penalty for Luna but said he struggled with the weight of the decision.

"I had to sit and meditate on it," Brown said. The defense's argument was to show mercy, he said. "(Luna) didn't show those seven people mercy. They begged."

Sentencing guidelines require a unanimous decision among panelists for a person convicted of a crime to be given the death penalty.

But a young stay-at-home mother who once worked at a chicken restaurant in Elgin voted in Luna's favor. The 28-year-old woman openly wept a week ago when the jury convicted Luna of the Jan. 8, 1993, killings. She declined to comment outside her North Side Chicago home Thursday.

Polishak was the first to break the jury's silence after the group reached a decision in the final phase of the five-week trial early Thursday evening. He spoke with reporters at the courthouse. Other jurors were interviewed at their homes.

On Tuesday, the group had determined Luna's crime was eligible for the death penalty. On Thursday, after two hours of deliberations, they decided his sentence. The final vote came after what one juror described as less-heated discussions than those that led to the guilty verdict. Though the jurors at times during the trial became emotional, they did not cry when discussing Luna's fate, one panelist said.

The ultimate decision was reached like every other one that had come before the group.

"We didn't want to try to convince someone out of their beliefs just to get them on our side," juror Timothy Beltran said after returning to his parents' Westchester home. "So, we figured we deliberated long enough. We didn't gang up on her. That's just not right."

Though bound by the experience, the jurors came from different backgrounds.

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 was Luna, who left Mexico as a child and became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

Beltran -- who had looked Luna in the eye during jury selection and said, "I can give you a fair trial" -- describes himself as a devout Catholic who led a sheltered life. One woman, Izabela Milott, works as a Cook County probation officer.

"I think this is a case where the evidence was so strong ... shot in the head, seven people," Milott said after returning to her home on Chicago's far Northwest Side.

Chicago Transit Authority worker Edward Stewart said that in the end, most jurors agreed life spent in a maximum-security prison would allow Luna to think about the brutality of his crime.

Also tapped to mete out a judgment was a 26-year-old financial analyst from Schaumburg who came into it thinking the Brown's Chicken trial was a food poisoning lawsuit. But once Stephen Koch listened to the evidence tying Luna to the restaurant where the killings occurred, he struggled to keep his emotions in check during the trial.

"There were times in court, I started sweating, I was so pissed off," Koch said.

Such experiences drew the jurors together over the five weeks.

"We became like a family in there," Polishak said.

They had daily raffles. They took turns bringing in snacks, like rib tips and candy. And when faced with the daunting task of deciding Luna's guilt and then his sentence, they did so openly. They shared their views and votes aloud and talked everything through.

Some panelists began deliberations uncertain about whether to give Luna the death penalty or life imprisonment, Polishak said. Two jurors initially believed Luna was innocent. The same woman who took six hours longer than the rest of the panel to determine Luna's guilt last week broke the unanimous vote on his sentence Thursday.

"We never pressured anyone into making a decision," Polishak, a city of Chicago plumber, said. "They have to live with that decision for the rest of their life. ... Why would you force an opinion or a decision on that person?"

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys thanked the jurors -- a team chosen in late March from a pool of 150 people -- for their attention and service.

Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine and other prosecutors also expressed disappointment that Luna did not receive the death penalty.

"We believe it was a death penalty case," Devine said, "and one juror, for whatever reason, did not go along with that. We respect that."

Defense attorney Clarence Burch said jurors told him they were relieved the trial was complete. "It was a very trying experience," Burch said.

For five weeks, the panelists were forced to confront the horrific details of that ice-cold night 14 years ago.

They listened to Luna describe slitting Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat in a videotaped statement. They watched footage of seven victims frozen in the positions in which they died, shot in a walk-in freezer. They heard relatives of Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis tearfully remember the impact of the loss of their loved ones.

And they heard Luna's 10-year-old son, Brian, describe a father who would tell him to respect his mother and his grandparents. He can't wait, Brian Luna said on the tape, to give his father a hug.

"It's taken a toll on us all," Polishak said. "None of us have been sleeping for weeks."

Also contributing to this report were Daily Herald writers Jill Jedlowski, Jake Griffin, Jeffrey Gaunt, Christy Gutowski, Rob Phillips, Rob Olmstead and Eric Peterson.