New book chronicles Brown's murderer's defense
The question people wanted Juan Luna to answer was the one question attorney Dennis Shere never posed.
"I never asked him 'did you do it?' It was clear that in his mind, he was innocent," said Shere, one of the attorneys who defended Luna during his capital murder trial for the deaths of seven workers at a Palatine Brown's Chicken and Pasta on Jan. 8, 1993.
"What drives a capital defense attorney is that everyone is entitled to his or her day in court and a full defense," said Shere, whose book "The Last Meal" published earlier this month chronicles attorneys' efforts to defend Luna, one of two men charged with one of Illinois' most notorious crimes.
"Juan insisted on his innocence," Shere said.
That was enough for lead defense attorney Clarence Burch, Stephen Richards and the rest of the team whose efforts helped spare Luna's life after a jury convicted him in 2007 of killing restaurant owners Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt and their employees Michael Castro, Guadalupe Maldonado, Thomas Mennes, Marcus Nellsen and Rico Solis.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent M. Gaughan sentenced Luna, of Carpentersville, to life in prison without parole after a single juror voted against execution. A second Cook County jury convicted Luna's co-defendant James Degorski of the murders in 2009. He also received a life sentence after two jurors voted against imposing the death penalty.
Focusing primarily on the trial, Shere doesn't devote many pages to rehashing the gruesome details of the crime or the lengthy investigation that culminated in May 2002 with the arrest of Luna and Degorski. Police apprehended the former high school friends after receiving a tip from Degorski's former girlfriend Anne Lockett, who said the men confessed to her, but she kept quiet because she feared for her life.
"The purpose of the book is not to retell the story of the Brown's Chicken murders ... but to point out the challenges a defense attorney faces in a capital case, particularly a case as notorious as this was," said Shere, a Cleveland, Ohio native and former reporter who received his juris doctorate from DePaul University College of Law in 2003 at the age of 63.
After law school, Shere worked for Luna defense attorney Richards in the Death Penalty Trial Assistance Division of the Illinois Appellate Defender's Office. After leaving the Appellate Defender's Office in late 2004, he served as a Kane County Assistant Public Defender until 2006 when he joined Luna's defense team. His responsibilities included poring over some 300,000 pages of trial documents and analyzing the responses of prospective jurors to jury questionnaires.
The fact that few tomes describe these kinds of proceedings from the defense's perspective inspired Shere to write "The Last Meal," whose title refers to the chicken dinner Lynn Ehlenfeldt sold to Luna and Degorski shortly before closing on the night of the murders. The remains of that dinner yielded the DNA that linked Luna to the murder scene.
Co-counsel Richards said he considers "The Last Meal" which incorporates trial transcripts as well as transcripts of police interviews with the defendant and witnesses among the best books written about a capital trial.
"It's exceptionally accurate," Richards said. "It's very good journalism written by someone who's a first-class journalist and had a ringside seat during the trial."
Defending Luna proved a daunting task.
"In some aspects it was like pushing water uphill," said Shere, a North Aurora resident whose first book, "Cain's Redemption: A Story of Hope and Transformation in America's Bloodiest Prison," about Louisiana's maximum-security Angola Prison, was published in 2005.
In the Brown's case, prosecutors had a DNA match, a partial palm print belonging to the defendant and most damning of all a videotaped confession in which Luna described the murders in detail, all of which "was packaged by the prosecution into what was considered a very convincing case," Shere said.
Of all the people involved in a trial prosecutors, witnesses, jurors and spectators "99.9 percent of them believe the defendant is guilty," Shere said. In most cases, only the defendant and his or her attorneys disagree.
Shere acknowledges that can be a lonely position, but every defendant is entitled to a rigorous defense, he pointed out.
"I think we did as much as we could possibly do to protect Juan Luna's legal and constitutional interests. That's what we were trying to do," said Shere.
But while prosecutors prevailed in winning a conviction, they fell short when it came to securing a death sentence for Luna.
"In a sense we did win because he did not get the death penalty," said Shere. "We got the one (victory) that a defense attorney in a capital case has to get."
Both Luna and Degorski have appealed their sentences.
"The Last Meal" by Dennis Shere is available from Amazon.com and can be ordered through Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores.