WILKES-BARRE — A federal judge on Thursday ruled that the death penalty remains on the table in the prosecution of convicted murderer Jessie Con-ui.
Con-ui, 39, is slated to stand trial in September on charges he attacked and then murdered 34-year-old corrections officer and Nanticoke resident Eric J. Williams at the base of a stairway inside U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County in 2013. Prosecutors allege Williams was blindsided at the top of the stairs, kicked down to the bottom and then beaten and stabbed to death.
Con-ui, allegedly irate that Williams had ordered for his cell to be tossed, said after the attack, “Hey man, I am sorry but I had to do what I had to do. I am sick of all your people’s disrespect,” according to prosecutors.
Despite arguments from the defense that insufficient evidence has been provided in the prosecution’s allegations, prosecutors claim footage from prison surveillance cameras shows Con-ui ambush an unsuspecting Williams and stab with multiple homemade shanks.
Con-ui was indicted in 2013 by a federal grand jury and charged with one count of first-degree murder, one count of first-degree murder of a U.S. corrections officer and one count of possessing contraband in prison.
In recent weeks, Con-ui’s attorneys had sought to have the death penalty stricken on several fronts, claiming among them that society no longer views the punishment as humane and that it operates in an “unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious manner.”
U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo wrote in a decision Thursday that the nation’s highest federal court has not yet made that the case.
“In 2015, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty,” the judge wrote, citing recent case law. “I am bound by the Supreme Court’s determination … the death penalty does not violate the Constitution.”
Prosecutors had argued Williams’ murder was carried out by Con-ui, a member of the New Mexican Mafia gang, in an “especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner,” and that similar arguments against the use of the death penalty by those facing the punishment have been repeatedly shot down in court.
Caputo in his decision echoed those arguments, stating that the death penalty has been deemed unconstitutional only in cases involving minors or the intellectually disabled but has otherwise been upheld.
The judge acknowledged that the constitutionality of the death penalty “has been debated in our country for years,” but stated, “I do not find that societal standards of decency have, in the past several months, evolved to the point where the death penalty should be declared unconstitutional in this case.”
Caputo also ordered that prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence not disclosed in informational outlines — a point of contention raised by Con-ui’s attorneys at a hearing earlier this month outlining their arguments against the use of the death penalty.
If the “government needs to submit additional evidence in support, it must make a good faith showing as to why that evidence was not disclosed and the additional evidence should be disclosed to (the defendant) with sufficient time for it to be adequately investigated,” the judge wrote.
Con-ui was at Canaan serving an 11-year prison sentence stemming from a 2003 guilty plea for his role in a drug ring run by the New Mexican Mafia gang. Following that sentence, he was set to begin serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in 2008 to first-degree murder in Arizona.
In that case, Con-ui allegedly baited friend and fellow gang member Carlos Garcia into meeting him at an Phoenix laundromat. There, two men ambushed and shot Garcia, who managed to slip away before one of the men fired four rounds into his head.
Court documents claim Con-ui also agreed to or participated in several separate, uncharged incidents while incarcerated between 1999 and 2010, including stabbing another inmate with a homemade knife and assaulting another inmate with a food tray.
While out of jail in 2013, court documents allege Con-ui agreed to participate in the murder of a law enforcement officer but was arrested in Arizona before the murder could be carried out.
Con-ui remains jailed at ADX Florence, a super-maximum federal prison in Fremont County, Colorado, nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL