WILKES-BARRE — Amid the public outcry that followed a jury’s decision this week to spare Jessie Con-ui’s life, one key question has emerged.
How did the lone juror who opposed a death sentence, a woman whose son was reportedly in prison, make it onto the panel?
A Luzerne County prosecutor said Wednesday a potential juror would not necessarily be excluded from service in a capital murder case just because they have a relative in prison.
In fact, County First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said some prosecutors might feel comfortable with such a juror because they could sympathize with having a loved one killed in prison.
“They might tend to think that if this animal had stabbed a prison guard, it’s equally likely they could have stabbed my son or daughter,” said Sanguedolce.
Con-ui, 40, was sentenced to life in prison for the 2013 murder of federal corrections officer Eric Williams, 34, of Nanticoke. The jury quickly convicted Con-ui of the crime during the trial’s guilt phase, but could not unanimously agree on the death sentence after five hours of deliberations in the penalty phase.
According to a juror interviewed Tuesday by the Times Leader, the panel was 11-1 in favor of a death sentence. The lone holdout — the foreperson — told the jury she had a son in the prison system and felt sorry for Con-ui’s mother, said juror Amy Wiedlich.
It has not been confirmed if the juror’s ties to the prison system were known.
Multiple attempts to reach the prosecutors from the case have been unsuccessful. A news conference scheduled after the verdict Monday was canceled, and a news release issued late Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania commended the work done on the case and expressed disappointment with the verdict.
Responding to the latest request Wednesday, a spokesperson said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment.
‘That’s not the law’
Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., who as a former Luzerne County district attorney secured the county’s last death sentence for child killer Michael Bardo, said jurors swear an oath to set aside personal assessments of the law and follow the terms given by the court.
“If at the end of the day the juror says, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for death because I felt sorry for the defendant’s mother,’ that’s not the law,” he said. “That’s something outside the box that the juror wasn’t told to follow.”
In capital cases, jury selection is critical, Olszewski said.
Attorneys are able to question jurors individually. During that time, they are given the opportunity to assess not only what they’re saying, but if they are being truthful, said Olszewski, who also presided over capital murder trials as a Luzerne County judge.
Attorneys have a short opportunity to make a critical assessment of a juror based upon their answers, he said.
Olszewski said the prosecutors in the Con-ui case have a strong reputation. And though he wasn’t present during jury selection, he believes prosecutors would have asked about any ties a potential juror might have to the prison system. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they would answer truthfully.
“At the end of the day, everybody has to rely upon the answers given by the juror,” he said. “Even though questions are asked, generally, jurors can say one thing and do another, and that’s sometimes difficult to overcome.”
Seeking death penalty in the case was certainly appropriate, he noted.
“It was brutal and it was heinous,” said Olszewski. “The defendant has a terrible past both before and in prison and it certainly presented the type of factual circumstances that could result in the death penalty.”
But it takes 12 jurors to agree, he added.
County prosecutor Sanguedolce argued for death in the capital murder trials of Hugo Selenski and Henry Stubbs, which each resulted in life sentences.
If a potential juror’s ties to the prison system emerged during the selection process, Sanguedolce said he would want to further explore the issue to learn more about how the relative came to be incarcerated. It can be a “mixed bag,” he cautioned.
“You have to weigh that factor against other character traits you found,” he said.
Sanguedolce noted prosecutors have limited time to interview potential jurors. No matter how thorough the questions, there’s no telling how they’ll react when it comes time to decide life or death, he said.
“They think they can vote for death, then they hear sympathetic stuff about the defendant, and they think I’m not going to be the one (to choose a death sentence),” he said.
Olszewski believes the death penalty has also become unpopular in the public’s eyes.
“It’s a difficult thing for jurors individually and ultimately collectively to sentence someone to death, but they know in the end they have the final word, not the judge,” he said.
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL