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Forensics expert testifies Luna's DNA is a match
BY STACY ST. CLAIR AND JOSEPH RYAN | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/19/2007

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The chances are 1 in 2.8 trillion that a Hispanic person's genetic code would match the DNA found on discarded chicken bones inside the Palatine Brown's Chicken, a forensic scientist testified Thursday.

Those are tough odds for the Mexico-born Luna, whose DNA does indeed match that found on two half-eaten chicken bones discovered at the scene, according to forensic expert Kenneth Pfoser of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Lab.

Luna is one of two men charged with killing seven people inside the restaurant in 1993.

Authorities contend the bones are the remnants of a final meal eaten and then tossed into an otherwise empty trash can minutes before the slayings.

In addition to DNA, prosecutors also used a partial palm print Thursday to link Luna to one of the bloodiest crimes in suburban Chicago history. The chicken bones and print are the only physical evidence tying Luna, now 33, to the murders.

Two DNA experts, however, have told the jury that at least one other person's DNA was found on a chicken bone. That person - who has never been identified - provided such a small sample that scientists don't know if the contributor was male or female.

The six hours of scientific evidence Thursday came at the end of the trial's first full week of testimony. The topic failed to keep some jurors' interests as at least three panelists looked to be nodding off at various times.

Prosecutors allege the tested bones are part of a four-piece chicken meal the killer ordered after closing on Jan. 8, 1993. The majority of the meal was found in the garbage after the murders, a fact that experts say suggests the night's final customer had no intention of eating the dinner.

Police preserved the food for years until scientific advancements made it possible to test the minuscule amounts of saliva left on the bones. After Luna's sample tested positive in May 2002, he was arrested in connection with the killings.

Prosecutors say Luna, a former Brown's employee, and his high school pal Jim Degorski fatally shot the restaurant's two owners and five workers that night in an attempt to "do something big."

The men, who are being tried separately, have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, both could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors are relying upon the DNA to physically link Luna to the murder scene - a task that must overcome several obstacles highlighted by Luna's defense.

First, every swab taken from the discarded chicken bones has been lost. And the forensic scientist who compared Luna's genetic code with the DNA found on the bones died in 2003, leaving her colleague Pfoser to testify to the validity of the calculations she made five years ago.

The biggest hurdle, however, may be the existence of the other DNA contributor on the chicken bone. Prosecutors tried to dismiss the second, unknown person Thursday with an expert who testified that it could have transferred easily from someone who coughed on, sneezed at or touched a door handle used by a person who touched the chicken.

While it's a plausible explanation, the defense has given the same reason for why Luna's DNA may be on the bone.

In addition to the DNA evidence, another forensic scientist testified Thursday that a dime-sized print found on a discarded napkin matches Luna's left palm. The partial print is said to be from a 1-square-centimeter area just below the pinkie and ring fingers.

That napkin was found in the garbage can, along side seven chicken pieces, more than three dozen fries, two uneaten biscuits, a couple unopened honey packets and a coffee stirrer.

The actual print has completely faded from the napkin, forcing experts to use a picture of the print taken with a Polaroid camera in their analysis. The blown-up image of the instant photograph then was compared with a print Luna provided upon his 2002 arrest.

Using a projection screen Thursday, forensic scientist John Onstwedder showed the jury how roughly three dozen tiny ridges and bumps from the napkin print matched Luna. He said it could match no one else in the world.

Earlier in the Brown's investigation, however, two Chicago police employees determined the palm print belonged to another man. Onstwedder was among the experts who had the ruling discredited.

Roughly 160 prints were lifted from the murder scene, Onstwedder said. Of those, 57 have yet to be identified - including a fingerprint on the lone tray above the trash can where the chicken dinner was found.

"This case by far is the largest case and probably the largest effort in Illinois State Police history," Onstwedder testified.

Under defense questioning, Onstwedder acknowledged there's no professional standards for determining what qualifies as a fingerprint or palm print match.

He also knew of no studies to determine whether the pattern found in a dime-size print can be shared by more than one person.

"There has been no specific research on a minimum number or minimum area," he said. "It's a subjective value based on the examiner's training and experience."

In an effort to prevent the trial from becoming bogged down by scientific talk, prosecutors are spending time each day focusing on one of the seven victims: Michael Castro, Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

On Wednesday, Juan Maldonado, who was 14 when his father took a job as cook at the Palatine Brown's, testified about their last afternoon together. As Guadalupe left for work, he kissed each of his three sons goodbye and said, "I love you. I'll see you later."

sstclair@dailyherald.com

jryan@dailyherald.com