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Big trial, big mistakes
Will investigators' missteps mean an O.J.-style result in Brown's trial?
By Stacy St. Claire | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/30/2007

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Law enforcement officials long have been accused of mishandling the Brown's Chicken investigation -- and the ongoing murder trial has done little to repair that image.

From losing evidence to forgetting to take important hand prints, police errors have given the defense ample ammunition. And as attorneys for Juan Luna, one of two men charged with the 1993 slayings, continue to make their case this week, those gaffes will remain in the spotlight.

"These are examples of incompetence," said Leonard Cavise, a professor at DePaul University College of Law. "It's not the kind of thing you expect from a 21st-century police department."

Prosecutors allege Luna, a former Brown's employee, and his high school buddy Jim Degorski killed seven people inside the Palatine chicken restaurant on Jan. 8, 1993. The men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, both could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors and Palatine police officials cannot comment on the handling of the case because of a court-imposed gag order.

Their own evidence, however, shows Luna was first questioned by police on Feb. 17, 1993. At the time, authorities were checking the alibis of many Brown's past and present workers and taking their fingerprints so they could be ruled out as suspects. By that point, an ex-employee had already been arrested -- and cleared -- in connection with the murders.

Luna showed up at the police station wearing a white shirt and black tie, an unusually formal outfit for the interview, police now say. Luna allegedly told former Arlington Heights police Officer Ronald Sum, a member of a quickly assembled police task force, that he spent the entire night of Jan. 8 with an ex-girlfriend whose last name he could not remember.

Sum took Luna's fingerprints after the interview, but did not take his left palm print. The police report indicates the interview and prints were done on different days, though Sum testified that they most certainly would have occurred during the same meeting.

Authorities now cannot find the original copy of that interview, though they located the fingerprints and a Polaroid picture he took of Luna.

Under intense questioning from the defense, Sum said he wasn't instructed to bring dubious alibis to investigators' attention. He was merely expected to file the paperwork, he said.

Police would not question Luna about his bizarre explanation until 1995 -- even though a forensic scientist notified Palatine of the need for the missing palm print two years earlier.

"I know I pointed it out," testified Jane Homeyer, who worked for the Northern Illinois Police Crime Lab at the time of the murders. "I'm sure I would have placed a personal phone call."

Police would not physically link Luna to the crime scene until 2002, but in the late 1990s, two fingerprint experts from the Chicago Police Department said another suspect matched the partial print found on a discarded napkin.

The two subsequently had their ruling overturned and lost their certification as fingerprint experts, according to court testimony.

The forensics team also has endured accusations of mishandling the DNA found on half-eaten chicken bones at the scene. In 1994, police sent the bones and a coffee stirrer to a laboratory in the hopes of obtaining a profile of the person they believe ate the last meal inside the restaurant.

The saliva sample, however, was too small at the time for testing. The scientist threw out the lone tested bone, a stirrer and, most importantly, the DNA extract.

"These are rookie mistakes," Cavise said. "They're inexcusable."

In 1995, police took the remaining bones to the Field Museum, where law-enforcement officials acknowledge the evidence was handled by scientists who didn't wear gloves.

Three years later, authorities sent the food remnants to the Illinois State Police Crime Laboratory. Once there, a forensic scientist swabbed five bones and found evidence of two people's DNA present. Prosecutors say Luna matches one of the profiles.

The swabs were mailed back to authorities, according to testimony, but the key physical evidence in the case was lost in transit.

"The DNA evidence wasn't handled properly," Cavise said. "It's important evidence in the biggest case in Cook County history and you trust a third-party to deliver it?"

Prosecutors, however, can downplay the majority of police errors, experts say, because they have a videotaped statement in which Luna implicates himself. Without that damning tape, experts say, state's attorneys could be looking at an O.J. Simpson-style trial in which the jurors question the police work and return a not guilty verdict.

Jurors tend to give less weight to physical evidence when an admission is involved, Cavise said.

"They're lucky they have a confession or they could lose this case," Cavise said.

Luna's statement, which the defense maintains was forced and thus wrongly obtained, also means prosecutors won't have to spend a lot of time trying to apologize or minimize the errors, experts say. Law professors, however, say they should acknowledge the errors in some form before deliberations begin.

"I don't think the mistakes will have a big impact on the jury," said Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent School of Law. "The prosecutors will have to address some of the issues. If they're smart, they will."

The law-enforcement missteps, however, aren't limited to the early years of the 14-year-old investigation. During questioning last week, Cook County Judge Vincent Michael Gaughan chastised a police officer who appeared to embellish his account of a 2002 conversation with Luna.

Palatine Police Sgt. Bill King told the jury that he interviewed Luna in 2002 after Degorski's ex-girlfriend implicated him in the murders. During that conversation, King testified, Luna said he had never returned to the restaurant after quitting in June 1992.

Though it's a seemingly innocuous comment, it's a key detail for prosecutors who want jurors to believe that Luna's DNA had to be left at the scene on the night of the slayings and not during a friendly visit to see former co-workers days earlier.

However, there's no documentation of that statement ever being made, according to court records. After King made the claim, Gaughan hurriedly excused the jury and criticized the sergeant on the record.

The judge gave King a warning and threatened to sanction him if he did something like that again.

"The fact that you remember it … years after the fact," Gaughan said, "is too suspicious."

When the jurors returned to the courtroom, Gaughan told them to disregard the statement because there's no documentation of it ever being made.

Though most of Gaughan's harsh words for King came outside the jury's earshot, Cavise says some members will be able to figure out why they've been told to ignore the comment.

"They can put two and two together," he said. "There will be at least one person (on the jury) who understands what happened there."