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What the jury will hear
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/13/2007

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An arduous task lies ahead of Juan Luna's defense team as opening statements begin today in the Brown's Chicken murder trial.

Luna's attorneys must confront DNA evidence, horrific crime scene photographs and a detailed video confession -- none of which casts their 32-year-old client in a favorable light.

Even more taxing for the defense, experts say, is that it must sway a jury already leaning toward the death penalty for people who commit first-degree murder.

Their case will be bolstered by not-insignificant weaknesses of the prosecution, namely that the police work surrounding the seven murders in 1993 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.

Will police shortcomings be enough to acquit Luna or, at the very least, spare his life? Despite a justice system that purports to tilt in favor of the accused, experts say the odds will be stacked against the defense.

It's likely the facts of the case will shock jurors much as the slayings rattled suburban sensibilities when they occurred 14 years ago, said Andrea Lyon, director of the DePaul Center for Justice in Capital Cases and Death Penalty Legal Clinic.

"It's an unbelievable uphill battle," said Lyon, a death penalty opponent who has defended more than 30 capital cases. "You have a horrible crime, a lot of dead white people and a bloody crime scene. It's a very tough case. I don't envy them."

Luna, formerly of Carpentersville, is one of two men charged in the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murder case, one of the biggest and bloodiest crimes in suburban history. He has pleaded not guilty.

His 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.

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 a 43-minute 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 the throat of one of the owners 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.

One legal expert predicts the video could be a fatal blow to Luna's defense. Though jurors might find reasonable doubt in the much-maligned police investigation, juries almost always convict when a taped statement is shown, said Douglas Godfrey, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

"They (the defense) had something until the statement," Godfrey said. "The investigation was so incompetently done. It was just a travesty."

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 victims: Michael Castro, Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

In fact, the state's first witness is expected to be Manny Castro, the father of 16-year-old Michael. Castro presumably will talk about how he called the police after his son did not return home from his part-time job on that cold Friday night.

When authorities failed to adequately check the restaurant, Castro drove to Brown's himself and spotted his son's car. He readily identified it by the Marine Corps sticker on the back, a symbol of his boy's desire to join the armed forces after high school.

The sorrow that still clings to the victims' families will be tough for the jury to overcome, Lyon said. Even though they have been instructed not to think about the death penalty until after the guilt-or-innocence phase, the specter of capital punishment hangs over the entire trial, she said.

"All the energy is on the death penalty," Lyon said. "The trial ends up being a long sentencing hearing."

Every single member of the jury already has said they could impose the death penalty on Luna if they found him eligible. State law prevents people who oppose capital punishment from serving as jurors in capital cases.

"It (the law) skews jurors to one side," Godfrey says. "From the onset, the defense has a group that is willing to give death."

During jury selection, several panelists voiced strong support for the death penalty or indicated that they considered a natural life sentence to be a waste of taxpayer money. At least two members, however, acknowledged that they struggled with the morality of capital punishment -- though they could ultimately vote for death.

"They know it's a serious case and they're going to take it seriously," Godfrey says. "I don't think people are that callous about giving someone the death penalty -- even if seven people were killed."