Move Comes After Deadlock on Killer of BOP Officer
After an 11-1 jury split on the penalty for the inmate convicted of killing a guard at the federal penitentiary in Canaan, Pennsylvania, two House members want to give federal prosecutors the right to empanel a new jury to decide the proper sentence, if the original jury cannot reach a unanimous decision.
On Nov. 30, Reps. Tom Marino and Lou Barletta, both Pennsylvania Republicans, introduced a bill (H.R. 4493) they call “Eric’s Law,” honoring the federal prison officer slain in February 2013 by inmate Jessie “Chino” Con-ui. The killer was already serving an 11-year sentence for gang-related drug trafficking in Arizona, and after that term expired, he faced a life sentence for murdering a gang rival in Phoenix.
The murder of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officer was especially vicious. Jurors watched an 11-minute security tape showing Con-ui kicking Eric Williams down a set of metal stairs, then stabbing him over 200 times with a pair of shanks, stomping and kicking him repeatedly in the face and head, and smashing his head against the floor. A co-worker testified that when he saw Williams’s corpse, he couldn’t recognize him.
At the trial, the killer admitted the crime, and his court-appointed defense counsel’s opening statement conceded Con-ui was “guilty of murder beyond all doubt.” The defense offered no witnesses during the trial’s guilt phase, instead concentrating on fighting a death sentence during the penalty phase. It took the jury only 30 minutes to convict Con-ui unanimously on two murder counts — in addition to killing Williams, he was also found guilty on a separate charge of murdering an on-duty federal law enforcement officer.
But after the penalty phase, throughout five hours of deliberations, all but one member of the jury backed a death sentence; the lone holdout told other jurors her son was in prison and she sympathized with Con-ui’s mother. One juror told reporters the holdout said she still “saw good in Jessie,” and so refused to impose the death penalty. Without unanimity, Con-ui received a life sentence. Federal corrections officers said they feared Con-ui might kill again if not executed.
The bill’s Congressional sponsors say it would give federal prosecutors the option, when a jury failed to reach unanimity on the penalty, to move to have another jury appointed, to hear a repeat of the sentencing phase of the trial. Prosecutors wouldn’t have to ask for a second jury to reconsider the penalty, but the trial judge would have to grant such a request if it were made. If the second jury also failed to reach a unanimous decision, the defendant would receive a life sentence, or another sentence falling short of capital punishment.
Sponsors claim this would to prevent a single juror from being to wield a veto over an entire jury. They note at least three states (Arizona, California and Kentucky) already give prosecutors the option to retry the penalty phase of a trial with a new jury when the first fails to reach a unanimous sentencing verdict. In 2016, Congress passed and President Obama signed the “Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act,” directing BOP to routinely issue pepper spray to officers and employees who might be called to respond to emergencies in prisons above minimum or low security.
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.