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Pondering death for Luna
By Tara Malone and Erin Holmes | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/13/2007

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Five years ago, Manny Castro vowed to "pull the plug" on the man charged with murdering his teenage son and six others in a Palatine restaurant.

Yet a day after 12 jurors found Juan Luna guilty, Castro said his son's convicted killer should languish behind bars for the rest of his days. Alive.

His shifting view reflects the complexity and emotion behind the next phase of Luna's trial: deciding his fate.

The same panelists who determined his guilt Thursday now must decide whether to sentence to death the 33-year-old Carpentersville man, one of two men accused of the most violent killings in Northwest suburban history.

Though bound by the tragedy of that cold January night 14 years ago, families of the seven victims are divided in their positions on Luna's future.

Some support a death sentence, saying their loved ones effectively received that when they were slain in the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant.

"Used to (be) I didn't feel this way, but when this happens to your family, you just … it's really hard," said Diane Clayton, whose son, Marcus Nellsen, was working his way into Brown's management when he was gunned down. "I feel that it's just, because of what he did to us."

Others among the victims' families contend a life behind bars would be more fitting. Luna's death, they say, would not bring back their son, their mother, their brother.

"I'm a religious person, and we're not supposed to put somebody to death," said Epifania Castro. At 16, her son, Michael, was the youngest of the seven victims. He would have celebrated his 31st birthday this month. "(With life), then he'll suffer longer."

At least one still grapples over which outcome -- death or life in prison -- is best.

"Would it be better to have him suffer or better to end it?" asked Robert Mennes. His younger brother, Tom, was killed while working his evening shift at Brown's. "It's hard to decide."

In the end, the decision belongs to the nine men and three women selected as jurors.

On Monday, they will begin to determine if Luna's crime qualifies him for the death penalty.

A candlelight vigil opposing capital punishment is planned outside the courthouse that morning.

If Luna is found eligible for death, the jury will hear arguments for and against sparing his life.

Several relatives of the victims will testify to how the slayings changed them. Some of the friends and relatives who attended the trial on Luna's behalf also are expected to speak to the man and father they say Luna is.

Prosecution and defense attorneys are not allowed to directly ask witnesses whether Luna should get the death penalty. However, both sides may offer thinly veiled questions about the impact Luna's execution would have on his family or the victim's families. Whether the 12 jurors pick up on those cues -- or what weight it gives them -- remains to be seen.

In Illinois, a moratorium on putting prisoners to death enacted by former Gov. George Ryan in 2000 still stands.

Ryan, who later cleared death row -- pardoning four inmates and converting the sentences of more than 150 others to life in prison without parole -- at the time declared the system riddled with errors. Efforts to implement death penalty reforms are ongoing.

As a Wisconsin state representative and the daughter of two Brown's victims, Jennifer Shilling confronted the issue.

Shilling -- whose parents Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt were slain in the restaurant they'd bought months before -- spoke out against the death penalty as proposed in a referendum that asked voters if it should be allowed for those convicted of first-degree murder with DNA evidence, as with Luna's crime.

"For some survivors of homicide, the thought of executing someone adds to the pain," Shilling said during the legislative debate in May 2006. "Nothing gives me chills more than the thought of a carnival atmosphere that I would see surrounding executions."

Neither her view nor that of her sisters since has changed.

"My sisters and I are still against the death penalty in all cases," Joy Ehlenfeldt, the youngest of the three daughters, said the day after the verdict.

While his older brother is unsure if life or death is best for Luna, Jerry Mennes said he believes Luna should live -- and think about what he did every single day.

Jerry Mennes, Tom's twin, said death would be too easy for Luna and James Degorski, the other man accused of the murders. Like Luna, Degorski pleaded not guilty. He awaits trial.

"I want them to be in prison and suffer and realize what they did," said Jerry Mennes, standing in his Palatine home, where an "in loving memory" sign he made 14 years ago for his twin still hangs above his bed.

"And feed them nothing but chicken three times a day. Nothing but chicken."

At least three of the victims' families disagree.

In addition to Nellsen's mother Diane, relatives of Guadalupe Maldonado and Rico Solis said they support a more final conclusion.

"We hope we could get the death penalty for this guy," said Juan Maldonado, the eldest son of the man known as Lupe to his friends. Juan Maldonado was 13 when he lost his father. He and his two brothers now are grown men of 28, 25 and 19.

Standing outside the courthouse after the verdict was read, relatives of Solis -- who dreamed of owning a fast car and enlisting in the military, like his grandfather before him -- also argued for death.

"He (Luna) was free for nine years," Solis' cousin Sharon Laureano said. "That was enough."

Manny Castro felt that way once. But time -- 14 years of mourning his son and wondering whether there would be justice -- changed his mind.

"We don't know if there's any life after that that he will suffer. We want a life sentence now so he (Luna) will suffer all the way," Castro said in his Palatine home, where roses surround Michael Castro's last school yearbook photograph.

Just down the road, a pear tree planted in his son's honor grows in a park. Its shade covers a nearby bench, where the Castros often come to sit.

Here, they remember how their son lived his 16 years.

Here, they come to cope.

"We have done our crying," Castro said. "Let Juan Luna do his crying now."