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Luna's dream team
By Kara Spak | Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer
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Published: 3/28/2007

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A 1997 McHenry County drug case paved the way for defense attorney Clarence Burch to work on the highest-profile case of his 29-year legal career - defending Juan Luna, the Carpentersville man accused of killing seven people in a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant.

Burch, who lives and works in Chicago, was hired by Luna's family because of his work with Jesse Nunez Sr., who was convicted of possessing cocaine with intent to deliver.

Though initially hired by Luna's family after Luna's May 2002 arrest, Burch was appointed by Cook County Judge Vince Gaughan to stay on the case in September 2003 after Luna's family said they no longer could pay him.

Burch now is paid through the state's Capital Litigation Fund, set up to help indigent defendants facing the most serious charges receive good legal representation.

Also in September 2003, Gaughan appointed attorneys Stephen Richards, Mark Lyon and Allen Sincox of the Illinois State Appellate Defender's death penalty trial assistance unit.

Helping them on the case is former Kane County assistant public defender Dennis Shere.

A former Cook County assistant public defender, Richards was hired to lead the death penalty unit in January 2000.

He and Lyon both represented Laurence Lovejoy, an Aurora man convicted of raping and killing his 16-year-old stepdaughter. A DuPage County jury sentenced Lovejoy to death.

State's seasoned vets

In 1997, private practice attorney Richard Devine stood in front of the Palatine building that once housed the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murder scene and vowed to do things differently if elected Cook County state's attorney.

His predecessor, Jack O'Malley, had sent assistant state's attorneys in to the crime scene to help with the investigation. Devine successfully campaigned that he would let the police investigate. His attorneys, he said, would give legal advice.

Today, Devine will begin selecting a jury to try the case of one of two men accused of killing seven people there in 1993.

For Devine, the prosecution of Luna and Degorski is making good on a decade-old campaign promise. It's one of the biggest cases of his career.

He's not going it alone.

Behind him stand the muscle of the prosecution - Linas Kelecius, Tom Biesty, Kevin Byrne, Scott Cassidy, Michael Ferrara, Brigid Brown and Alan Spellberg - who hail from the state's attorney's Special Prosecution Bureau.

The bureau is a group of about 50 seasoned attorneys who work on cold cases or financial or government corruption cases.

"They do most of the long-term investigations for the office," said John Gorman, Devine's spokesman.

The Brown's Chicken case isn't Devine's first foray into Northwest suburban crime. He was in court in 2005 for the guilty plea of Russell Sedelmaier, a former house cleaner who was sentenced to life in prison after admitting to killing a Buffalo Grove father and daughter then setting fire to the house to cover his tracks.

Defendant: Juan Luna

Age: 33


Education: Fremd High School Class of 1992

Charges: Seven counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 8, 1993, deaths of Michael Castro, Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis in a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant.

Plea: Not guilty

Criminal background: Arrested in 1999 for deceptive practice for writing a bad $100 check at an Algonquin business

Case summary:Prosecutors say former Brown's Chicken & Pasta employee Luna lived a lie for nine years, masquerading as an upstanding citizen with a wife and a child while carrying the secret that he and co-defendant and former high school classmate Jim Degorski were responsible for the most violent chapter in Northwest suburban Chicago history. Luna and Degorski were arrested in May 2002 after an ex-girlfriend of Degorski came forward to say they told her in detail what happened in the restaurant those 44 minutes in January.

Prosecution evidence: DNA found on a half-eaten chicken at the crime scene matches Luna; Luna's videotaped confession to police following his arrest; testimony from former Fremd High School friends who say Luna and Degorski told them of the murders

Defense:Client is innocent, confession was coerced, chicken evidence was mishandled, police have the wrong man

Notable quote:"They were yelling don't shoot us, please don't shoot us. Their hands were shaking too," Luna said in a videotape confession prosecutors will play during the trial.

Defendant: James Degorski (to be tried separately)

Age: 34

Hometown:Most recently Indianapolis, also lived in Wauconda and Hoffman Estates

Charges:Seven counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 8, 1993, deaths of Michael Castro, Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis in a Palatine Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant.

Plea:Not guilty

Next court date:April 3

Trial date: Not yet decided

Source: Daily Herald reporting