Luna, Degorski fight Brown's convictions from prison

As the names of the seven victims in the Brown's Chicken murders rang throughout a Chicago courtroom — each followed by a succinct “guilty” — Juan Luna and James Degorski didn't join in the eruption of gasps and weeps.

Luna swallowed hard after the May 2007 verdict, took a deep breath and removed his glasses, wiping away tears with a napkin he kept folded in his brown suit. The married father later gave his family a small wave before deputies led the way back to a jail cell.

More than two years later, Degorski would remain still and stoic in September 2009, looking only ahead as he retraced his accomplice's path to a life sentence.

The pair who together took seven lives now lead separate but parallel existences in maximum-security prisons on opposite ends of the state. Degorski, 40, and Luna, 38, spend the bulk of their days in 6-by-10-foot cells, frequently poring over the limited legal resources at their disposal.

Five times a month, up to three guests can visit Luna at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Their meetings start with a wait in a cold, dirty visitors center. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and are patted down in a cinder-block room, stamped on the hand by a guard and given the go-ahead to walk through a yard and into the main prison building.

After metal-barred gates close behind them, visitors are ushered down several stairs into a cafeteria, past vending machines to a round table where Luna, tattooed and adorned with wireless glasses and a light blue shirt, sits unshackled but elevated so armed guards have an unimpeded view.

Downstate at the Menard Correctional Center housing Degorski, all but one-tenth of the population sleep two men to a cell, which includes bunks, bedding, toilet and sink.

“Daily life varies from inmate to inmate,” said Stacey Solano, chief public information officer with the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Typically, they “go to yard” for five hours a week of recreation and leave their cells for meals, barring lockdown status or disciplinary issues.

They might be able to get jobs as porters or work in the laundry or kitchen, making up to $50 per month. Those not working receive $10 per month or $15 if enrolled in full-time academic courses. Inmates can use the money to buy TVs and other approved items from the commissary.

Luna and Degorski, who both wrote letters declining interview requests, look out at towers with armed guards, knowing that only after decades of good behavior will they stand a chance of gaining additional privileges with a transfer to a medium-security prison.

Until then, both study their appeals, which are making their way, ever so slowly, through the First District Appellate Court.

It took Luna's appellate defenders nearly three years after his May 2007 conviction to sort through 16,000 pages of documents and file an opening brief detailing his case.

Assistant Appellate Defender Kathleen Flynn submitted five main points, according to court documents, starting with the argument that the trial shouldn't have included Luna's palm print or DNA evidence without special hearings.

Unlike Degorski, who was convicted without a single piece of physical evidence, investigators linked a partial palm print on a discarded napkin to Luna and his DNA to half-eaten chicken pieces found in the garbage.

Flynn wrote that no valid scientific basis for latent print identification has ever been demonstrated and that the amount of DNA used in testing fell below standards.

Appellate defenders also are arguing there was prosecutorial misconduct in the state's rebuttal closing argument, saying a prosecutor hinted at evidence hidden from the jury and implied Luna's defense counsel didn't believe its own theory. The prosecution's statement that the jury's verdict would “send a message to the community” prejudiced jurors against Luna, they wrote.

Finally, Flynn argues the trial court erred by refusing to introduce statements implicating two other men in the murders, one of whom made a detailed video confession to police.

The state, led by Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Alan Spellberg, submitted its own brief in June disputing the defense claims. The case's most recent filing came in September with Flynn's reply.

Degorski, who was tried separately and convicted in September 2009, isn't as far along in the appeal process.

Appellate Defender Alan Goldberg laid out a couple of main arguments for a new trial. The first centered around the testimony of current Cook County circuit court Judge Michael McHale, who was an assistant state's attorney when he took Degorski's confession at the Streamwood police station after his May 2002 arrest.

Goldberg wrote that Degorski was deprived of his right to a fair trial when jurors learned that, first, McHale was now a sitting judge, and, second, that he said he believed the confession to be reliable and truthful.

“After all, if an experienced prosecutor like McHale, who was now a figure of judicial authority, believed that Degorski's confessions were reliable and truthful, who were the jurors to disagree?” Goldberg wrote.

The appellate defenders also said the trial was irreparably tainted when the jury watched a “gruesome and grotesque” video of a detective removing five bloodied, stiffened corpses from the restaurant walk-in freezer.

Goldberg wrote that because the state's evidence consisted almost exclusively of his confession and admissions he made to two former girlfriends of questionable credibility, those aspects of the trial were made all the more critical.

Degorski was less than pleased with the case presented on his behalf.

Referencing copies of legal documents he'd been receiving for the past three years at Menard, Degorski produced his own handwritten motion in November — using identical formatting — to introduce additional issues and arguments.

In a somewhat confusing five-page document littered with spelling and grammatical errors, Degorski wrote that the jury's knowing McHale was a judge was highly prejudicial because several jurors either worked in law enforcement, had relatives in law enforcement or wanted to pursue a career in the field.

He also said the lack of evidence, the mishandling of evidence, the witnesses' character and morphing stories over the years warranted a dismissal of charges.

Degorski's motion was denied.

Cook County State's Attorney office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton declined to comment on Spellberg's behalf, citing the pending cases.

Palatine Police Chief John Koziol was with the department at the time of the murders and took over as chief just five months before the arrests. He said those who worked the case still think of the victims' families often.

“Our hearts go out to them,” Koziol said. “We are well-aware of what wonderful people were taken from the earth that night all at the hands of two evil monsters masquerading as human beings.”

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Work begins on bank at former Brown's Chicken site in Palatine

A photo of a prison cell at the Menard Correctional Center, located in southwestern Illinois. courtesy of IDOC
An interior photo of the Menard Correctional Center, located in southwestern Illinois. Courtesy of IDOC
An interior photo of the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. Courtesy of IDOC
Michael Castro
Richard Ehlenfeldt
Guadalupe Maldonado
Tom Mennes
Marcus Nellsen
Rico Solis
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