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Duty-bound 150 people in court learn they could be on the jury
March 29, 2007
By Stacy St. Clair | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/29/2007

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What happened Wednesday: Potential jurors filled out questionnaires and listened to the charges against Juan Luna. Luna bid the 150 possible panelists a good morning at the beginning of the proceeding.

On tap today: The judge and attorneys will interview the first 30 candidates from the pool. Potential jurors will be asked, among other things, about their knowledge of the case and their feelings toward the death penalty.

Amid the sea of potential jurors inside a Cook County courtroom Wednesday sat - or perhaps stood - the 12 people who will decide Juan Luna's fate.

The future jurors will be asked to weigh in on the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murder case, one of the biggest and bloodiest crimes in suburban history. The trial is slated to begin in April after an exhaustive jury selection process is completed.

From the moment they entered the courtroom, the 150 potential jurors clearly sensed the enormity of the case. Roughly two dozen reporters stood off to the side, while a near equal number of attorneys were gathered in front.

The potential panelists squeezed into wooden benches and then stood along the walls once all the seats were taken. As their eyes darted around the room, Cook County Judge Vincent Michael Gaughan confirmed that they had been summoned to serve on a headline-making case.

"This is also known as the Brown's Chicken case," Gaughan said. "Probably a lot of you have heard about that."

With those words, the judge began the first of two long-awaited trials for the men accused of murdering seven people inside a Palatine fast food restaurant in January 1993. Both Luna, 33, and his former high school pal James Degorski, 34, have pleaded not guilty to the crimes.

Most jurors remained stone-faced as Gaughan announced they could be serving on the case. A few nodded their heads in recognition of the killings, while one man grimaced and began slowly rubbing his temples.

Luna, who was dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, stared out at the potential jurors from the front of the courtroom. When his attorney Clarence Burch introduced him, Luna stepped forward and offered a soft smile.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," he said.

Luna's docile nature quickly came under scrutiny as Gaughan read the 21-count indictment against him. The charges detail allegations of Luna's role in the murders of seven people: Michael Castro, Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Richard Ehlenfeldt, Guadalupe Maldanado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

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. 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.

Jurors spent the morning filling out a thick questionnaire and reviewing a witness list to determine whether they knew anyone involved in the case. The document, written by attorneys on both sides, was placed under seal by Gaughan and withheld from the public.

But a defense-submitted version filed in December showed that Luna's attorneys were interested in finding out about the potential jurors' teenage years. The form, for example, asked whether respondents considered themselves popular in high school and if they listened to heavy metal music in their youth.

The document also asks them to define themselves with "Breakfast Club"-like labels. "If there is a type of high-schooler or teenager you were seen as, such as jock, nerd, burnout or princess, what type were you seen as?" it asks.

The defense's proposal also included standard questions about past brushes with the law, social histories, political affiliations, education and family background. It delves into the respondents' feelings about the death penalty as well, a natural inquiry given Luna could face the death penalty if convicted.

The potentially pivotal value of jury questionnaires became evident during the federal racketeering trial of former Gov. George Ryan. In that case, two jurors failed to disclose criminal backgrounds on the forms, and their omissions were not discovered until after deliberations had begun.

The two were dismissed and replaced with alternates, but Ryan's appeal is partially based on juror misconduct.

The Cook County state's attorney's office intends to perform criminal background checks on all potential Brown's jurors and will share its findings with the defense, spokesman John Gorman said. Gaughan also reminded the group that they were under oath when filling out the forms.

"Honesty is the best policy," he said.

Gaughan instructed the potential jurors not to speak to anyone about the case or pay attention to media reports. He also reminded them the evidence must convict Luna and that they should draw no inference about his innocence if he does not testify.

The judge thanked them for their service, telling them that theirs is the only civic service required by law. Even in this time of war, he said, jurors are still the only Americans forced into duty.

"Even though we have ... a war on terror, these outstanding young men and women are not drafted," Gaughan said.

After the 45-minute meeting with the jury pool, the judge huddled with attorneys in his chambers. He placed both sides under a gag order during their closed-door discussion.

"God love you all," he told the potential jurors before adjourning.

The jury pool spent the rest of the morning filling out their questionnaires before leaving for the afternoon. The potential jurors will return in groups of 30 over the next two weeks for further questioning by the judge and attorneys.