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Opening statements start in the Brown's murder trial
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/13/2007

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More than 14 years after seven people were murdered in Palatine's Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant, the trial of one of the two alleged killers began Friday with Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine calling the gruesome crime "some moment" and a defense lawyer asking jurors to stay open minded.

A jury of 10 women and 2 men heard opening statements in the case against Juan Luna, an appliance installer formerly of Carpentersville.

Devine opened the case for the prosecution.

"The defendant will tell you he was caught up in the moment. Some moment," Devine told jurors gathered in the Chicago courtroom.

Oddly, early on in his statement, Devine was interrupted and pulled aside by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Michael Gaughan because he repeatedly mistakenly referred to the restaurant as a Burger King rather than Brown's Chicken & Pasta.

DNA evidence coupled with a detailed, 43-minute video statement Luna made upon his arrest in 2002 will convict Luna, Devine said.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, cited the bungled investigation, botched DNA evidence and the fact other people confessed to this crime, using facts only the killer could have known.

Defense attorney Clarence Burch cited for jurors a bloody footprint found at the scene of a woman's size 8½ Reebok shoe.

"The blood is telling you what happened. The blood is crying out in this case, the victim's blood," Burch said.

Burch acknowledged the heinous slayings that gave rise to one of the biggest and bloodiest crimes in Northwest suburban history.

Still, he said, jurors must "keep an open mind."

Jurors also heard testimony from the state's first witness: Manny Castro, the father of 16-year-old Michael Castro, one of the seven people killed in the 1993 slaying.

A stoic Castro told of repeatedly searching for his son after he did not return from work that fateful night. "I looked all over the place," he said. "I looked all over Palatine."

Luna's high school pal, Jim Degorski, also has been charged in connection with the slayings and has entered a not guilty plea. The two men will have separate trials.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors allege Degorski and Luna, a former Brown's employee, shot and killed five of the restaurant's workers and its two owners on Jan. 8, 1993, in a quest to "do something big." After writing the most violent chapter in Northwest suburban Chicago history, the defendants returned to unassuming lives and kept their actions a secret for nine years, police say.

Luna was living in Carpentersville with his wife and son at the time of his arrest. Degorski was working as a repairman in Indianapolis.

Prosecutors are expected to take several weeks presenting their case. Among their witnesses will be two high school friends who told police of Luna's and Degorski's alleged involvement with the murders nine years after they occurred.

They'll also play the video in which Luna gives a chilling, bullet-by-bullet account of what happened inside the restaurant. During the 2002 statement, Luna coolly describes how he slit one of the owner's throats and how the victims begged for their lives.

Luna maintains police officers beat him before the recording and promised to take him home to his young son if he confessed on camera.

The defense team's case will be bolstered by the not-insignificant weaknesses of the prosecution, namely that the police work surrounding the murders often has been criticized as sloppy and ineffective.

The defense strategy will be to highlight the many bungles, false leads and even confessions that overwhelmed the investigation from its onset. They're also sure to stress that law enforcement officials suggested - wrongly - that they had detained the culprit within 24 hours of the crime.

The prosecution will dedicate about 25 percent of its case to the DNA match experts say they found between Luna and a half-eaten chicken dinner at the crime scene.

In an effort to prevent the trial from becoming bogged down by scientific evidence and losing its emotional punch, the prosecution is expected to spend 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.

Return to dailyherald.com for regular Brown's trial updates.