SCRANTON — The jury that found Jessie Con-ui guilty of the brutal murder of corrections officer Eric Williams must decide if he should live or die.
As the penalty phase of the 40-year-old Con-ui’s trial began Monday, jurors heard testimony that depicted Williams as “the life of the party,” and they also learned that the defense will ask them to spare his life because of what his death would mean to his family and friends.
Earlier this month, the jury found that Con-ui stabbed Williams more than 200 times with a pair of shanks while the 34-year-old Nanticoke native was on duty at U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County on Feb. 25, 2013.
Con-ui’s guilt now decided, the same jury is now charged with determining his sentence — life in prison without the possibility of parole or death by execution.
During the trial, jurors were shown an 11-minute video of Con-ui’s ambush-style attack on the unsuspecting guard, and still photos of the crime scene shown to the jury Monday graphically showed the blood that resulted from the attack.
According to the prosecution case, Williams was stabbed 203 times, kicked 11 times, and stomped in the head, neck and face six times, prosecutors said. Con-ui can also be seen on the video lifting Williams’ limp body up and slamming it off the concrete floor.
The jury must be unanimous in its decision on the death penalty, or Con-Ui will receive life without parole.
The prosecution began by detailing Con-ui’s prior convictions, including one first-degree murder conviction for which he was sentenced to life in prison.
Robert J. Feitel, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Capital Case Section, said the video alone of Con-ui attacking and beating Williams to death is enough to warrant the death penalty.
“However,” he said, “there is much more.”
Con-ui was already serving 25 years to life in prison for killing a gang member in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2002. He was also serving another sentence of more than 11 years for selling 33 pounds of cocaine, Feitel said.
The prosecution also entered into the record Con-ui’s violent past, including attacks on other inmates, threats to correctional officers and a thwarted conspiracy to kill several people, including a Phoenix police detective.
“After you have heard all of the evidence of just who this defendant is, what he has done and all of the violence, we will be back up here and ask you to impose the penalty that this defendant has earned and deserves — a penalty of death,” Feitel said.
Defense attorney David A. Ruhnke of Montclair, New Jersey, told the jury that the question of Con-Ui’s guilt has been decided and not in dispute. He challenged the jury to consider life over death for his client and then proceeded to detail numerous reasons why Con-ui’s life should be spared.
Ruhnke said Con-ui’s family will testify, including his mother and his two sons. He also talked about Con-Ui’s life, from early childhood on and how he was subjected to an impoverished upbringing, an abusive father who beat his mother and verbally assaulted her. All told, Ruhnke listed 57 mitigating factors that shaped Con-Ui’s violent life.
Ruhnke also described Con-ui’s life in prison — isolated 23 hours of every day and not allowed any interaction with other inmates. He showed photos of Con-ui’s cell, an 80-foot space with no windows.
“He will live in these conditions until the day he dies,” Ruhnke said. “He will never be allowed to return to the general population in prison.”
Since the attack on Williams, Con-ui has been held in solitary confinement at Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado — known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
“This is not a free crime,” Ruhnke said. “He has no hope of release.”
Several witnesses were called Monday, including Dr. Mohammad Siddiqui, the physician who was on duty at Geisinger CMC’s Trauma Center when Williams was brought in on February, 25, 2013. Siddiqui graphically described Williams’ condition, concluding that he pronounced him dead at 11:36 p.m. that night.
Corrections Officer James Covos of the U.S. Penitentiary at Victorville, Calif., told of an incident when Con-ui threatened him after a search of his cell in October 2009.
The jury also heard the emotional testimony of Joseph Brozowski, one of Williams’ best friends. Brozowski now works for the U.S. Marshall’s Service in Scranton. He and Williams first met when they both were employed at Wegman’s in Wilkes-Barre Township.
Brozowski said he and Williams became close friends “almost instantly,” and would go fishing, hunting, to NASCAR races, concerts and vacations at the beach. He said he and Williams were as close as brothers.
“He was an absolute breath of fresh air,” Brozowski said. “He was always the life of the party — always smiling.”
Brozowski said he misses Williams every day. He and his family remain close with the Williams family.
“I’m lucky because I have a wife and family that loves me and I cherish that,” he said. “I know Eric wanted the same thing. He enjoyed being around people. He enjoyed life so much.”
Testimony resumes Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.