Proposed legislation named after murdered federal prison guard Eric Williams aims to bring new life to death penalty cases.
But some local legal experts question its legal grounding.
Williams, a 34-year-old Nanticoke native, was brutally killed by inmate Jessie Con-ui, who was spared the death penalty by a single holdout on the jury in a decision that outraged some.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and three other Republican legislators on Wednesday introduced “Eric’s Law,” which calls for impaneling a second jury for the penalty phase of a capital case if the first one is unable to agree on a death sentence.
Senate Bill 2389 seeks to deliver justice to victims and families, the lawmakers said. Some area defense attorneys, however, say that’s at the expense of the defendant.
In Williams’ trial last July, a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on whether Con-ui should be put to death. That resulted in two life sentences without parole for Con-ui, a federal prison inmate already serving life for a gang-related murder in Arizona.
Toomey and Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, decried Con-ui’s legally delivered life sentence, saying the defendant went essentially unpunished for the murder.
“The lack of any consequences in this case highlights a flaw in our justice system that this legislation will address,” Toomey said in a press release.
But defense attorney John Pike, of Kingston, compared the proposed law to “getting a second bite at the apple” after an unfavorable outcome.
“The death penalty is the ultimate sentence and should not be easy to get,” said Pike, who was previously certified to handle capital cases.
Pike feels lawmakers should consider what it will take in terms of cost and resources to hold a second penalty phase. It amounts to almost retrying the case to bring the jury up to speed and provide context for the jurors before they can hear the penalty phase, he said.
The circumstances of Williams’ murder were horrific, but what the senators are doing is “feel good legislation” in reaction to what happened, Pike said.
“There’s no flaw in the justice system,” said attorney Al Flora Jr., of Wilkes-Barre, who has handled death penalty cases. The 12 jurors in the Con-ui trial assessed the evidence, but could not come to a unanimous decision on a death sentence, he said.
Flora questioned if the proposed legislation violates the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Mills vs. Maryland. In that case, the court determined you don’t need unanimity in finding mitigating evidence, he said.
“That decision is really the hallmark for defining how capital juries are to assess evidence and how to weigh evidence,” said Flora.
In the capital phase, mitigating evidence, such as a defendant’s upbringing, and aggravating factors, including criminal history, are presented for the jury to consider in reaching a decision.
The jury returned a guilty verdict of first-degree murder and first-degree murder of a U.S. corrections officer against Con-ui for the 2013 stabbing attack on Williams at the federal penitentiary in Canaan in Wayne County. But the panel of eight women and four men could not come to a unanimous decision on whether Con-ui should be sentenced to death for the murder.
Con-ui, 41, is serving his sentence at a federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. The facility is known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” and houses the most dangerous prisoners in the federal system.