Eleven of the jurors who convicted Juan Luna of the 1993 Brown's Chicken massacre voted to sentence him to death Thursday, but his life was spared because of a lone holdout.
The 12-member jury spent just two hours deliberating, then voted overwhelmingly for the death penalty, according to Cook County prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors who spoke to reporters after the sentencing.Jurors said the holdout was the same woman who initially balked before the panel voted unanimously last week to convict Luna of murdering seven workers at the Palatine fastfood restaurant during a robbery. They declined to identify her.
Unlike last week, the majority made no attempt to change her mind on sentencing.
"We didn't gang up on her because that's not right," said juror Tim Beltran, 22, of Westchester. "You don't want to force her into anything."
Under Illinois law, a death sentence can be imposed only by a unanimous jury vote. The split vote left the jury to recommend a life sentence for Luna, 33.
Juror Sherwood Brown said he struggled with whether to impose the death penalty, recalling how one of Luna's lawyers spoke of mercy during closing arguments. But Brown said he concluded that Luna hadn't shown his victims any mercy. "They begged" to live, he said.
Juror Izabela Milott, 36, a Cook County probation officer, said her job teaches her not to give up on people. But Milott, who lives in Chicago, said the murders were so gruesome that Luna was beyond saving.
"I don?t think we can trust him; I don't think we would be safe," Milott said in explaining why she backed the death penalty for Luna. "This was an unbelievable crime."
Nevertheless, jurors said they had agreed not to try to sway any holdouts in the death penalty phase because the earlier deliberations over Luna's guilt or innocence had been so emotional and contentious.
Before the sentence was read, Luna sucked in his breath. He exhaled slowly and made the sign of the cross as the jury announced his fate. Then he stood up and bear-hugged his lawyers, Stephen Richards and Clarence Burch, saying, "Thank you." Luna's brother wiped away tears from behind his glasses, as his father shook his fists in apparent celebration.
"I don't think anyone should ever die, including my brother," Jorge Luna said after the sentence was in.
Victims' families split
The families of the victims had been publicly divided over whether Luna should get the death penalty. When the decision was read, some reacted with anger, some with a sad acceptance.
Diane Clayton, the mother of restaurant employee Marcus Nellsen, 31, struggled to speak as she wept. "This is not justice," she said. "Not when seven people were brutally killed."
The Ehlenfeldt sisters, whose parents were both killed that night, had earlier taken a stand against the death penalty. "We respect the decision," said Jennifer Shilling, one of three daughters of restaurant owners Richard Ehlenfeldt, 50, and his wife, Lynn, 49. "At 33, Luna will spend the rest of his natural life in a maximum-security correctional facility where he will only know the sterile routine of a convicted felon."
Clarence Burch, Luna's lawyer, said his client was relieved by the sentencing decision and was looking forward to an appeal. "He believes he will be vindicated at a later date," Burch said.
State's Atty. Dick Devine said he respected the jury's decision, as did Assistant State's Atty. Scott Cassidy. But Cassidy also stressed that he had told jurors during the trial that anything less than the death penalty would be wrong. "I argued in court that it would be an injustice if Juan Luna did not get the death penalty," he said after the sentencing decision.
Palatine Police Chief John Koziol had a mixed reaction. "A case like this makes us all question our faith in humanity," Koziol said. "Last week the jury restored every ounce of that lost faith. We are disappointed in tonight's verdict."
Thursday's decision capped a six-week trial filled with gruesome testimony about how Luna and an alleged conspirator, James Degorski, walked into the restaurant at closing time on Jan. 8, 1993, herded their victims into a freezer and shot them. The robbery netted less than $2,000.
Degorski has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a trial date.
For juror Stephen Koch, 26, there was never any doubt about Luna's guilt or whether he deserved the death penalty. "The defense never even put a doubt in my mind. All roads led to Juan Luna," said Koch, standing on the front steps of his Schaumburg home.
Koch said the majority of the jury wasn't disappointed in not getting the death penalty. "We wanted to lock him away from the general public, from his family, from having any kind of real life," he said.
The most convincing piece of evidence for Koch was Luna's palm print found on a napkin in the restaurant. The defense had no way to discredit this evidence, Koch said. But DNA evidence on a discarded chicken bone and a videotaped confession Luna made after his 2002 arrest were unquestionable as well, Koch said.
Koch said the holdout juror had strong feelings against imposing the death penalty, primarily because Luna had a 10- year-old son.
Beltran, the youngest member of the jury, said he was initially skeptical of two key prosecution witnesses, Eileen Bakalla and Anne Lockett, who testified that Luna and Degorski told them they had committed the crimes. Bakalla had known Luna and Degorski since high school, and Lockett had been Degorski's girlfriend. The two women testified that they kept mum about the murders for nine years because Luna and Degorski had threatened them.
But Beltran said other evidence helped lend credibility to their claims. "When their testimony is in sync with his confession, you have to give it some credit," Beltran said.
Before the jurors weighed their decision, they heard final pleas from lawyers for the prosecution and the defense.
As he asked jurors to spare his client, Burch said the man's family will have to "live with the shame on the name of Luna."
'Lean toward life'
"I'm asking you to lean toward life, lean toward life because justice has been served," Burch said. "Death is not the answer, taking life for a life. ... Temper justice with mercy. I'm pleading with you to express mercy."
During the prosecution's rebuttal, Cassidy displayed the pictures of the seven victims on a screen. He told jurors to leave sympathy for the victims as well as for Luna out of their decision.
"You know as you sit here today that this man, Juan Luna, slaughtered seven people. He did it. You know he did it. Now he's asking for mercy," Cassidy said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun