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Stating their cases
BY STACY ST. CLAIR AND JOSEPH RYAN | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/15/2007

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Fourteen years after the Brown's Chicken murders stunned an entire region, a jury finally is being asked to hold someone accountable for the slayings of seven people.

The enormous weight of the highly publicized case now hinges upon the panel's trust in DNA evidence from an old chicken bone, a disputed videotaped confession and a partial palm print. It also requires jurors to judge the reliability of botched detective work and two witnesses who kept their purported knowledge of the case a secret for nearly a decade.

"You have to listen to the whole story," defense attorney Clarence Burch told the jury. "If you listen to half of it ... it sounds good. But you have to listen to all the facts of the case."

Opening arguments in the long-awaited trial began Friday with the prosecution describing the evidence against Juan Luna - one of two men charged with the killings - as irrefutable. Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine promised his case would be bolstered by the DNA evidence, a detailed confession and a palm print not matched to the defendant until after his arrest.

As the victims' families watched with red, watery eyes, Devine gave a bullet-by-bullet account of Luna's alleged actions on Jan. 8, 1993 - a narrative made all the more haunting Friday when prosecutors played a DVD of the blood-soaked crime scene.

"The defendant will tell you he was caught up in the moment," Devine said. "Some moment."

If only the goriest chapter in suburban history could be wrapped up so neatly, Burch responded.

Though Devine's account described a horrific event and a coldblooded killer, Burch told the jury it failed to mention the glaring weaknesses in the prosecution's case. In a forceful speech punctuated by animated gestures, Burch foreshadowed evidence of shoddy police work, mishandled leads and even other confessions.

"I am here to free an innocent man," Burch said. "Juan Luna is not guilty. Please don't make up your mind at this point."

Luna, 33, was living in Carpentersville with his wife and 4-year-old son at the time of his May 2002 arrest. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

His high school pal, Jim Degorski, also has been charged in the slayings and has pleaded not guilty. The two men are being tried separately.

The prosecution launched its case against Luna Friday with testimony from Manny Castro, the Palatine man whose 16-year-old son was among those killed inside the restaurant. He described his mounting worry that night as he waited for his always obedient son to return home from work.

Castro went to the restaurant at least four times looking for Michael, a high school junior who was saving money to buy a new car stereo. He even drove to other local hangouts in hopes of finding the teen socializing with his friends.

"I looked all over the place," a stoic Castro testified. "I looked all over Palatine."

On his fourth trip to the restaurant, Castro encountered Palatine police officer Ron Conley, who ordered him to keep away. The restaurant, Conley said Friday, was a crime scene.

Conley testified he entered the building with another officer around 3 a.m. and went to the freezer. The scene inside the small unit was so horrific, the mere memory caused him to choke up on the stand.

"The easiest way for me to describe it would be a mass of humanity," Conley said. "Arms and legs intertwined, bodies one on top of the other. It was hard to tell how many people were in there."

Conley then walked the jury through a video of the crime scene, giving a visual image of the narrative Devine had shared earlier in the day.

The panel showed little reaction as it viewed the bloody, bullet-riddled bodies of the seven victims - Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Marcus Nellsen, Guadulupe Maldonado, Rico Solis, Thomas Mennes and Michael Castro.

Most had gunshot wounds to the head. At least two died with their eyes wide open. A frightened 17-year-old Solis, who was in the crumpled heap next to his close friend Castro, had vomited french fries moments before his execution.

Using Luna's own words from the video confession against him, Devine earlier had told the jury five of the seven victims pleaded for their lives as they were herded into the walk-in freezer.

"(Luna) will tell you that in that small space the people were standing and moving backward and they were saying, 'Don't shoot. Please don't shoot,' " Devine said.

Unmoved, Luna raised his gun, Devine said, and pulled the trigger over and over again.

During his opening, Devine slowly - and powerfully - detailed how many times each victim was shot or stabbed and what body part endured the trauma.

Lynn Ehlenfeldt was stabbed with a knife that cut her throat 5 inches and a half-inch deep. Marcus Nellsen suffered a fractured skull after being hit with the butt of a gun. Maldonado was shot three times, including two to his head and one to his hand.

The teenage Castro took the most bullets - six - including one to his palm. It's proof, Devine said, of a "final, futile effort to avoid death."

Luna blamed Degorski for shooting the two other victims - Richard Ehlenfeldt and Mennes - in a walk-in cooler, Devine said.

"The evidence that will be presented will show that Juan Luna and Jim Degorski wanted to do something big," Devine said. "Sadly, we have to say that they accomplished their goal. And because of that, seven people who had lives to live are no longer among us."

Sniffles could be heard in the courtroom as Devine detailed the fatal injuries each person suffered. The muffled cries became a little louder when he showed jurors photos of the victims and shared their personal histories.

As Devine painted a diabolical portrait of the defendant, Luna stared straight ahead with little expression on his face. His family - which included his wife, parents and two siblings - also sat stone-faced inside the packed Chicago courtroom.

Luna maintained his masked expression during the passionate oration in Burch's opening as well. Burch verbally attacked the prosecution's best evidence, especially the chicken wing destroyed during prosecution testing in the 1990s.

He cast doubt on the partial palm print that was not matched to Luna until after his arrest, despite the fact he gave fingerprints to police a month after the murders.

"It is a horrific case in terms of the facts," he told the jury of nine men and three women. "But don't get that confused with the evidence of this case."

Burch told the jury about a confession from a previous suspect, saying the man's statement included information "only the killer could have known." Police have discounted that confession as faked.

He also pointed out two footprints found at the scene, neither of which matches Luna's size. One of the bloody prints, he said, belongs to a woman's size 8.5 Reebok sneaker.

"The blood is telling you what happened," he said. "The blood is crying out in this case, the blood of the victims."

Burch contends Luna made up the damning confession after 19 hours of an interrogation in which his sprained ankle was in pain and he didn't know what officers had done with his young son after the arrest.

Luna's lead defense attorney, however, saved much of his venom for Degorski's ex-girlfriend Anne Lockett, the woman police say kept the men's secret for nine years. He described her as an alcoholic and drug abuser with a history of mental problems.

"That is their star witness," Burch said, shaking his head.

The trial resumes Monday.

sstclair@dailyherald.com

jryan@dailyherald.com