WILKES-BARRE — The foreperson of the jury who spared Jessie Con-ui’s life on Monday broke down during deliberations and confessed to the 11 other jurors she couldn’t bring herself to sentence the multiple murderer to die because her son was in jail, a juror said Tuesday.
The 11-1 split decision resulted in an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Con-ui, 40, who the panel convicted June 7 of murdering federal corrections officer Eric Williams, 34, Nanticoke, inside Canaan federal prison in Wayne County in 2013.
Faced with an unyielding fellow juror, Amy Weidlich wondered what to do next.
“When a person tells you no matter what you say that they’re not changing their mind, at what point do you say, ‘OK, they’re not changing their mind?’” said Weidlich, of Wilkes-Barre, who was Juror No. 7.
With the lone holdout unwilling to budge after five hours of emotional deliberations, the panel prepared to enter the courtroom and deliver its verdict, but not before Weidlich gathered them together to do the only thing she could think of in light of the decision they were about to make.
“We all bowed our heads and said a prayer for the Williams family, hoping they could somehow get through this,” she said. “We prayed for Eric. We also said a prayer for Jessie’s family, just because that’s where the other juror was most concerned.”
Weidlich, 42, said she and several other jurors sought out the family after the verdict. But by that time, Williams’ father, Don Williams, was already outside the courthouse expressing his shock and anger over the decision.
Some of the jurors wanted to tell the family how they came to their decision, Weidlich said. They wanted to tell them the majority was on their side. Most of all, she said, they wanted the family to know their pain wasn’t lost on the jury.
“I wanted them to know 11 of the 12 jurors were with them,” she said. “I wanted them to know the jury cared.”
The names of the 12 jurors have not been publicized. Responding to a request by the Times Leader Media Group to release the list Tuesday morning, court officials said they were working on a course of action.
“We are extremely disappointed with the jury’s verdict, but I want to highlight the outstanding work of all the men and women who worked on this case for over four years,” said United States Attorney Bruce D. Brandler.
The jury had three days off before beginning deliberations Monday.
“Everybody did their soul searching,” Weidlich said.
She went into deliberations with a sense that most of the jury was for a death sentence. An initial vote taken after weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors revealed two holdouts. After one changed their vote, they turned to the last remaining holdout, only her mind couldn’t be changed, Weidlich said.
“She kept saying, ‘I just feel bad for Jessie’s mother,’” recalled Weidlich.
The panel was hesitant to push too hard, she said. Jurors were told to work toward a unanimous decision, but not by bullying or harassing holdouts.
Finally, Weidlich asked the juror if she was willing to go before Williams’ parents and tell them their son’s death will go unpunished. A life sentence would deal the Williamses another blow, she said. It would inflict additional pain. They discussed what precedence the sentence would set for corrections officers in other federal prisons.
But the juror still wouldn’t budge.
Weidlich prodded further. She told the holdout she couldn’t leave the deliberation room thinking Con-ui’s life was being spared because one juror felt bad for his mother. There had to be another explanation, she thought. Then, the juror broke down.
“She said her son is in prison,” Weidlich said. “She said we can’t bring Eric back. There’s enough bad things in the world the way it is, and I can’t see taking a life.”
At that point, Weidlich knew the juror’s mind was made up.
“It just isn’t fair how this turned out,” she said.
When the verdict was read, Weidlich couldn’t bring herself to look up.
Weidlich’s vote for death didn’t come easy. She considered that a life behind bars would be “torturous,” but in the end could not overcome the brutality of the murder and Con-ui’s lack of an explanation for it.
“He never answered why he did it,” she said. “He doesn’t really know? OK, how do I know he won’t snap in this courtroom?”
Weidlich and the other jurors watched as Con-ui stomped and stabbed Williams more than 200 times with a pair of homemade shanks in a nearly 11-minute recording of the attack played during the trial’s guilt phase. They watched as Con-ui paused to wash a cut on his hand, take a drink, and chew gum he took out of the dying corrections officer’s pocket.
Weidlich sobbed while it played, she said. She sobbed afterward.
“He just wouldn’t stop,” she recalled. “He just kept going and going. When you thought it was over, it wasn’t.”
Some of the details of the case kept her up at night, she said. Her stomach turns when she sees gum at the store. She’ll never forget the experience, she said, or Eric Williams and his family.
Weidlich isn’t concerned what the future has in store for Con-ui, but she hopes he will be kept in isolation away from other corrections officers.
She and the other jurors absorbed weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses. She said she found Con-ui’s brother, Jim, most believable. All the attorneys on the case were excellent, she added.
“There’s nothing in my mind the government could have done more to prove their case,” she said. “And the defense did what they needed to do: they told us it only takes one.”