WILKES-BARRE — Prospective jurors in the capital murder trial of accused corrections officer killer Jessie Con-ui have filled out questionnaires in the first leg of a jury selection process expected to last until at least late April.
Federal prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty against the 40-year-old inmate when the case goes to trial, supporting their pursuit with claims the brutal nature of Eric Williams’ killing warrants the sentence.
The Nanticoke native was allegedly killed by Con-ui inside U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County in 2013.
Prosecutors claim Con-ui ambushed an unarmed Williams, disarmed him of his radio, then beat and stabbed the 34-year-old to death, allegedly pausing at times to clean a wound he suffered from repeated thrusts of two shanks and to chew gum he took from Williams’ pocket.
A court filing Tuesday indicates prospective jurors began filling out an “extensive” questionnaire at the federal courthouse in Scranton last week. By March 31, attorneys will submit a list excusing certain jurors based on their responses.
Smaller panels will appear at the courthouse for further questioning beginning April 24.
At that time, groups of 12 prospective jurors will be brought into the courtroom for general questioning, according to the filing. They will then be excused while attorneys entertain challenges based on their answers. Once any challenges are ruled on, the group returns to the courtroom one at a time for individual questioning.
If a juror is not excused, he or she will become part of a larger pool subject to further strikes — attorneys’ right to excuse a prospective juror from the case without providing a reason. Con-ui’s attorneys say they are seeking 32 strikes instead of the standard 20 allotted in a capital murder case, according to the filing.
After both sides exhaust their strikes, the remaining 18 become the jury. Six alternates are included.
Once the jury is seated, the trial will feature a guilt phase and, if necessary, a penalty phase. If the jury convicts Con-ui of Williams’ murder, the same jurors go on to the penalty phase, where they will be tasked with determining whether Con-ui deserves to be sentenced to death or life in prison.
Con-ui’s guilt has not been contested by his attorneys, who claim his attack on Williams was retaliation for alleged mistreatment at the prison. They argue, however, that Con-ui doesn’t deserve to be put to death for the crime.
Tuesday’s court filing says the trial is estimated to last up to two months, and will take place Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Should the trial go to the penalty phase, there will likely be a week off before it begins.
There are no plans to sequester the jury, the filing states.
The penalty phase would essentially equate to a second trial. Attorneys will present opening statements, witnesses will be called and cross-examined, and closing arguments will be heard. The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo, will then instruct the jury ahead of their deliberations.
Unlike the guilt phase, however, there can be no hung jury in the penalty phase. If jurors can’t unanimously agree that Con-ui should be sentenced to death, Caputo is required by law to impose life in prison.
In determining Con-ui’s sentence, jurors will consider aggravating and mitigating factors — circumstances that either justify or challenge the imposition of a death sentence. Jurors must decide whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors.
Tuesday’s filing says Caputo has approved questions “designed to supplement and clarify jurors’ responses on the questionnaire and to explore juror attitudes on issues such as the death penalty, exposure to publicity, the nature of the crime, and the aggravating factors alleged by the government.”
Those circumstances include Con-Ui’s prior conviction for a 2002 murder in Arizona, history of drug distribution and participation in other acts of violence while incarcerated and out of prison, the filing states.
Con-ui is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree murder of a federal corrections officer, and possession of contraband in prison.
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL