By Michael R. Sisak
The Citizens' Voice
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Donald Williams trembled Tuesday as the killer — locked in a supermaximum-security prison 1,700 miles away — glared up at a closed-circuit camera and pleaded not guilty to murdering his son, federal Correctional Officer Eric Williams, in February at the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County.
For nearly five months since his son's death, the elder Williams knew Jessie Con-ui only by name, mugshot and reputation as an Arizona gang member, drug pusher and previously convicted killer who prosecutors said ambushed his son and repeatedly stabbed him with a makeshift knife. In an instant, as the picture on the courtroom video screen switched to an austere meeting room at the prison in Florence, Colo., he saw and heard him, too.
"There is nothing I didn't expect," Donald Williams said by telephone after the proceeding — a terse arraignment predicated on the formalities of extending attorney assignments, outlining the charges and potential penalties, and scheduling a tentative trial date.
Con-ui, already slated to serve 25 years to life for gunning down a gang rival in Phoenix in 2002, could face the death penalty if convicted of either of the most serious charges in the Williams killing - first degree murder and the first-degree murder of a federal correctional officer.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt set Con-ui's trial for Sept. 16 at the federal courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, but an attorney for Williams' family said he expected the potential death sentence to complicate the discovery process, causing extensive delays.
The prosecution of the inmates charged in the last correctional officer killing at a federal prison, in Atwater, Calif., in June 2008, could provide a rough guide for the trajectory of the Con-ui case. Appeals and wrangling over whether Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero should be tried together or separately have stalled jury selection until at least next spring.
In that case, according to a Bureau of Prisons report, Guerrero chased Correctional Officer Jose Rivera, tackled and held him to the ground; Sablan then stabbed Rivera with an ice pick-type weapon.
The grand jury indictment charging Con-ui last month gave little detail about the alleged attack, but Williams' colleagues told The Citizens' Voice in March that Con-ui ambushed Williams during the nightly lockdown, pushing him down a flight of stairs and stabbing him to death. Con-ui, wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit and eyeglasses, waived a public reading of the charges and prosecutors would not reveal anymore about their theory of the attack.
U.S. Attorney Peter Smith watched the arraignment from the jury box, alongside Williams' father, Donald; his mother, Jean; his sister, Lauren; and other relatives. He declined to speak after the arraignment, citing a long-standing office policy.
Mark Fleming, a pre-eminent death penalty-certified attorney appointed in March to defend Con-ui, stood by his side at the Florence, Colo., prison. Fleming has represented a number of high-profile murder suspects, including Jared Loughner, who killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., during an assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011.
Another court-appointed attorney, James Swetz, of East Stroudsburg, appeared at the arraignment in person, exchanging pleasantries with Blewitt and Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Sempa as they waited for a video technician to connect them with Con-ui. Blewitt, citing a financial disclosure form that showed Con-ui with little or no income, formally reauthorized both defense attorneys to remain on the case.
Swetz would not say whether Con-ui, a reputed member of the New Mexican Mafia prison gang, would proceed to trial or attempt to negotiate a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty. Swetz said he and Fleming would not speak about the case.
"We are not going to have any comment on today's proceeding," Swetz said, as he left court.
The lead prosecutor in the Con-ui case, Bonnie Hannan, of the Justice Department's Capital Case Unit in Washington, D.C., is also on the team prosecuting Sablan and Guerrero. She sat in the courtroom gallery during the arraignment Tuesday, next to a pair of television reporters, as Blewitt ran Con-ui through a series of questions to gauge his understanding of the allegations and whether he was satisfied with the quality of his taxpayer-funded representation.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"Yes I am," Con-ui said.