Daily Herald
Two years later, trial still vivid for jury of first Brown's case
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 8/11/2009 12:23 PM | Updated: 8/11/2009 9:47 PM

In escaping the death penalty, Juan Luna was extended the kind of mercy he denied his victims in the Palatine Brown's Chicken mass murder.

More than two years later, that decision still stirs strong emotions for some members of his jury, especially as a second defendant's trial gets under way.

James E. Degorski, 36, pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if he is convicted. Lawyers continued Tuesday peppering prospective panelists with questions in the second day of Cook County jury selection.

Stephen Koch plans to be a close observer when testimony begins late this month on the infamous Jan. 8, 1993, slaying. The 28-year-old Schaumburg man knows all too well the emotional journey that awaits those tapped.

For five weeks in the spring of 2007, Koch and others on Luna's jury were confronted with the horrific details of a crime that brought such pain and loss it reverberates still more than 16 years later.

Jurors listened to Luna in a videotaped confession describe slitting restaurant owner Lynn Ehlenfeldt's throat as she nervously fumbled to open a restaurant safe. They watched footage of the slain, the youngest just 16, frozen in the same position in which they died, shot in a freezer.

And panelists heard the tearful testimony of relatives of Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt, Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.

In the end, though, Luna's life was spared with a lone juror's holdout vote. The same Chicago woman was one of two jurors who at the beginning of deliberations believed Luna was innocent. There were no secret votes. She later sided with the others on a guilty verdict, but did not waver on the death penalty.

Luna, 35, formerly of Carpentersville, is serving a life prison term.

That fact still is hard for some of his jurors to stomach. They question whether the so-called holdout juror, now 30, was being honest when she said during jury selection, regarding the death penalty, "depending on the crime, I'd be in favor of it." The stay-at-home mom who once worked at an Elgin fast-food restaurant openly wept during the arduous trial.

"She would never have sentenced anyone to death," said Izabela Milott, a 38-year-old Cook County probation officer from Chicago with three children, at the time all under 5. "I'm not saying it's not hard, but you have to be honest with yourself and others and tell the truth. It isn't an easy decision, but that's your job as a juror."

Added Koch: "He murdered seven people. I don't know what more you need."

After the verdict, facing intense media scrutiny, the holdout juror temporarily left her Chicago apartment with her husband and two young children. She has never spoken publicly about her decision, despite repeated requests, and asked not to be named. She was not available for comment for this story, but a brother-in-law who spoke on her behalf after the May 17, 2007, sentence said she relied on only the facts, not faith, to shape her views.

For juror Sherwood Brown, some regret still lingers. Jurors deliberated 11 hours in the guilt/innocence phase, but just two in deciding Luna's punishment. At the time, the close-knit group - whose daily chats, raffles and potluck lunches and hotel sequesters made friends of 12 strangers - didn't want heated debate.

"I regret we didn't press her enough," said Brown, a 46-year-old Chicago computer programmer. "Not that I wanted to get her to cave in, but at least to give us a valid reason why she opposed the death penalty. We should have stayed in there longer, but every one of us was tired and worn out."

Brown recalls watching one of the victim's tearful mothers on television saying the sentence was not justice.

"I just sat there and started crying," Brown said. "I remember yelling at the TV saying, 'We tried!' After listening to all the evidence of cruelty, and having to keep our emotions in, it all just came out of me when I got home."

Koch agrees. Still, since the victims' families were divided on the death penalty, the Schaumburg man said he can live with the sentence. After the verdict, other jurors also said perhaps a fate worse than death for Luna would be to live the rest of his life in prison away from his family.

Authorities linked Luna to the killings at his former workplace through his detailed videotaped police confession, his DNA on nibbled chicken and a partial palm print on a discarded napkin.

Prosecutors lack physical evidence linking Degorski to the crime scene. Their strongest evidence is a short May 17, 2002, video in which they said Degorski admitted shooting two of the seven victims.

Without forensic evidence, Brown, Koch and Milott agree the Degorski prosecution faces a tougher task. They said their decision would have been far less clear without it.

Still, the jurors said there was other evidence. For example, two old friends testified Luna and Degorski bragged to them about the crimes as authorities scoured the country for the killer.

Though the defense will raise credibility issues, such as the fact the women waited nine years before approaching police, the three Luna panelists said their jury found some truth in the women's testimonies. The jurors believed Degorski was alongside Luna during the restaurant slayings. They still aren't sure, however, if he was the crime's mastermind as Luna attorneys portrayed him to be.

The Luna jury was made up of nine men and three women drawn from across Chicago and its suburbs. Six were minorities. At least one was an immigrant. Some still are too troubled by the case to talk about it.

There's one truth that those who did comment said they can't escape.

"They were innocent," Brown said of the victims. "They went to school or to work thinking they'd see their families and parents again. And then they were gone. Their lives were stolen forever."

Regrets: Luna jurors say Degorski case is tougher