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Juan Luna found eligible for death penalty, some victims' families stand vigil
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/15/2007

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Juan Luna's relatives joined one of his victim's families outside the Cook County courthouse Tuesday morning to protest the death penalty.

Mary Jane Crow, whose brother Michael Castro suffered the most bullet wounds in the 1993 Brown's Chicken murders, said taking Luna's life would not lessen her family's grief.

"It doesn't kill our pain," she said. "It only kills one person."

A jury ruled after the protest that Luna's crime was eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors and defense attorneys now will argue whether Luna should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

The jury could not reach unanimous agreement on whether Luna actually is responsible for killing any of the victims nor could they agree whether the murders were "cold and calculated," two of the "aggravating factors" used to determine whether someone is eligible for the death penalty. Other factors include multiple deaths, premeditation, or a crime performed during the commission of another felony.

The jurors' lack of unanimity could be a positive sign for Luna's defense lawyers as they proceed to presenting testimony about whether the jury should actually impose a death sentence on the former appliance salesman from Carpentersville.

In the days after Luna's 2002 arrest, the Castro family said they hoped the Carpentersville man would be sentenced to death. Michael Castro's father, Manny, even offered to the "pull the switch" on Luna.

Over the years, however, Crow says the family's religious convictions have replaced their need for vengance. They now hope Luna, 33, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

"Revenge and justice are two different things," Crow said. "He did not have mercy on our family, but we will have mercy on him."

Last week, the jury convicted Luna of killing seven people inside the restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993.

Prosecutors allege he and Degorski, now 34, fatally shot their victims in an attempt to "do something big." Degorski, who will be tried separately, also has pleaded not guilty. He, too, could face the death penalty if convicted.

Four of the victims' families oppose the death penalty for Luna, while three think he should be killed for brutally murdering seven people. The Castros, however, were the only victims' relatives to join the Lunas at the Tuesday morning press conference.

As Crow spoke, nearly two dozen members of the Luna family - including his wife, parents and two siblings - stood behind her holding white votive candles. Crow fought back tears as she prayed for Luna's life to be spared.

"Blood for blood is not the right answer," she said. "Violence does not end violence."

Luna's younger sister, Brenda Sanchez, thanked the victims' relatives for speaking out against the death penalty and for the kindness they have shown her family during the trial.

"We're praying for them," Sanchez said.

Sanchez did not speak about the trial or her brother's conviction. She said her family's religious convictions have made them lifelong opponents of the death penalty.

"We're Catholics and very religious," she said. "God is going to show us mercy."

The press conference was organized by Murder Victims' Families For Human Rights and a DePaul University student group. The Castro family, however, was the catalyst for the event and extended an invitation for the Lunas to join them.

"It says more about them than it does about the organizers," said Eliot Slosar, the DePaul student who helped arrange the event.

The Castros said they have not forgiven Luna, but they know God would want them to do so. Mary Jane Crow said she also wanted to send the right message to her children.

"At one time I did [forgive Luna] and I'm sure I can find it again in my heart," she said. "We came from the same maker, and he in a way is my brother. He's very lost, he's very angry and he needs to find his way home."

Th daughters of restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt also oppose the death penalty. They declined to speak at the vigil, but they did stand in the wings as the Lunas and Castros spoke.

"I am against the death penalty in all situations," said Joy Ehlenfeldt, their youngest daughter.

During the vigil, Joy Ehlenfeldt stood with her arm wrapped around Diane Clayton, whose son Marcus Nellsen was killed inside the restaurant. After seeing her son's bloody corpse on several occasions during the trial, Clayton says she thinks Luna should die for his actions.

Clayton says she respects the Castros' opinion, but she objects to their insistence that God wouldn't want them to push the death penalty.

"God didn't do this," she said. "Juan Luna did this."

Joy Ehlenfeldt said despite the philosophic divide, the families remain supportive of one another.

"I support all six of the victims' families no matter what their opinion of the death penalty is," she said. "I think we all need to come together and support one another. I can respect everyone's opinion whether they're different from mine or not."

As the vigil concluded, Luna's jury resumed deliberating inside the courthouse whether his involvement in the Brown's Chicken murders meets the legal requirements for the death penalty. The debated for a total of five and a half hours over two days and announced the verdict at about 11:20 a.m.