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Defense points to non-matching prints
Luna's lawyers say foot, fingerprints don't match
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/27/2007

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What's new: Defense team begins to slowly build its case.

What's next: More defense witnesses take the stand Monday.

In the defense's first crack at the case, Juan Luna's attorneys began to weave together evidence Thursday to show someone else brutally murdered seven Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta employees in the winter of 1993.

They pointed to a fingerprint that doesn't match Luna's on a green service tray atop a garbage can where prosecutors say chicken and a napkin were found containing his DNA and palm print.

Then there is the footprint behind the counter that doesn't fit Luna, the employees or any investigators. Add to that the mounting evidence of a botched crime scene investigation and another man's confession to the killings, defense attorneys said.

The defense hopes that, as this side of the story is strung together over the next several days, at least some jurors will see Luna as his younger brother does.

"His reputation was always to follow the law and never break any of the rules," Jorge Luna testified Thursday as the defense's first witness.

The prosecution wrapped up its case this week with a lengthy videotaped confession in which Luna admits to knifing one of the seven victims on the night of Jan. 8, 1993, and says he didn't expect a robbery to turn into the Chicago suburbs' most violent crime. The prosecution also has put forward two of the defendant's old high school friends who say Luna and his best pal, Jim Degorski, bragged about the slayings as authorities scoured the region for suspects.

Degorski, 34, and the 33-year-old Luna, who have pleaded not guilty, are being tried separately. Both could face the death penalty if convicted.

Jorge Luna, a 31-year-old Vernon Hills financial adviser, testified that as his brother's damning confession was being coaxed, his family was frantically calling police stations trying to find him. Juan Luna was arrested on the afternoon of May 16, 2002, at a Carpentersville gas station. His 5-year-old son, who was with Luna at the time of his arrest, was brought home with a confusing story about police hustling his father away.

Later that evening an officer came to Juan Luna's parents' home in Cary and told his family not to worry about his safety, Jorge Luna said.

"I wanted to know what was going on," Jorge Luna said. "And he said, 'I can't tell you.'"

The defense alleges Luna was abused during his 19-hour interrogation and that he made up the confession because he wanted to see his son and believed police wanted to pin the crime on Degorski.

The defense also began laying groundwork to convince jurors of big holes in the prosecution's case, which took nearly two weeks to complete.

Palatine officer William Heche was questioned Thursday as one of the only local officers on the crime scene technician team. He described a partial footprint in the back service area on top of a piece of paper. The defense has said that footprint does not match Luna or any of the employees. They also contend there was another bloody footprint in the restaurant that also doesn't match any known subjects.

Heche also described an apparent bullet dent in a metal fryer hood and a bullet hole in a plastic strip covering a walk-in cooler where two men were found dead. The defense says both were described in detail by another man who confessed to the crime.

But it was the garbage bag containing chicken, biscuits, fries, napkins, honey packets, coleslaw and an empty cup that drew the most attention from lead defense attorney Clarence Burch.

Heche initially told jurors he saw at least one discarded napkin in the trash can, but he danced around the statement when presented with his report from the scene, which didn't mention a napkin. Heche acknowledged if the detail was not in his report -- which precisely described other trash in the bin -- it generally means he did not see it at the crime scene.

It's a notable concession for the defense, which has questioned the circumstances surrounding the napkin's discovery. Luna's partial palm print was not matched to the napkin until after his 2002 arrest, police say.

In contrast, authorities linked Luna to DNA found on half-eaten chicken bones before apprehending him, court records show.

While the napkin and chicken bones were found in a near empty trash can, a lone green tray sat atop the receptacle. Former forensic scientist Chris Hedges testified that he pulled a single fingerprint from that tray as part of the crime scene investigation.

Witnesses have testified that the print does not match Luna, the employees or any other person connected with the case.

Among those whose prints have been ruled out are the many people involved in the crime scene investigation. Former Palatine officer Kurt Saxsma, who is now a teacher, testified that he recorded 46 names of people who entered the restaurant in the hours after the killings.

Saxsma was also one of the two officers who discovered the seven victims -- Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Marcus Nellsen, Thomas Mennes and Rico Solis -- inside the restaurant.

The defense will continue to call witnesses as the trial resumes Monday.

jryan@dailyherald.com