Attorney: Accused killer cried after deadly attack on correctional officer

Inmate Jessie Con-Ui had "tears pouring down his face like dew" after the attack on CO Eric Williams, his lawyer argued in federal court

By James Halpin
The Citizens' Voice

WILKES-BARRE — He may be a convicted gang assassin, but guards and inmates at U.S. Penitentiary Canaan have also described Jessie Con-ui as a quiet, respectful inmate who is the last person who would murder Correctional Officer Eric Williams — and who had “tears pouring down his face like dew” after the attack, his lawyer argued in federal court Thursday morning.

The prosecution theory that Con-ui, 37, kicked Williams down a flight of stairs before beating and slashing him to death with two shanks because he was upset over a mere cell search doesn’t add up, said attorney Mark F. Fleming, of Encinitas, California.

The defense is seeking Bureau of Prisons records detailing reports of staff misconduct and violence that Fleming said could demonstrate negligence, which could be a mitigating factor against the death penalty during Con-ui’s July 2016 trial.

Inmates at the prison have reported “outrageous, clearly inappropriate conduct” — including guards shredding their property, leaving open cans of tuna fish to rot behind the walls and beating inmates out of view of the cameras, he said.

“We’re not going to be offering excuses for the death of Officer Williams during the guilt phase. What happened to Officer Williams is inexcusable,” Fleming said, arguing that prison conditions and Con-ui’s state of mind are an “essential” component of the defense. “The question is why? Why on that night did Mr. Con-ui snap and do what’s depicted on that video?”

The night was Feb. 25, 2013, and Con-ui’s cell had been searched about an hour before the murder, Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis P. Sempa said. In the time between, Con-ui fetched three prison shanks and began “laying in wait” on the second floor of the cell block, he said.

As Williams ascended a set of stairs, Con-ui moved into a position at the top, giving him the advantage, Sempa said.

“He kicked Eric Williams in the head and he goes after him — goes after him with two homemade weapons,” Sempa said.

Williams fell down the stairs and Con-ui tossed aside a radio — Williams’ last chance for help — as Con-ui proceeded to stab him more than 200 times and stomp on his head, he said.

Afterward, Con-ui said to another officer taking him into custody “I am sorry, but I had to do what I had to do. I am sick of all your people’s disrespect,” according to prosecutors.

“What we have is a well-planned, pre-meditated murder,” Sempa said.

In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors alleged Con-ui showed an “utter lack of remorse.” But a recently surfaced Bureau of Prisons email exchange in fact details a meeting Con-ui had with a chaplain shortly after the attack and describes him as “weeping, apologizing and telling the chaplain how sorry he was,” Fleming said, noting the prosecution only received the email about two weeks ago from prison officials.

Fleming said the notion Con-ui was driven to murder by a simple cell search doesn’t make sense. In his 8½ years in federal custody, Con-ui had never before attacked a correctional officer despite being searched hundreds of times, he said. In fact, several of his custodians at Canaan told investigators Con-ui was always well-mannered and respectful — one said Con-ui was the “last person they would ever suspect” of the murder, Fleming said.

Defense interviews of more than 70 inmates at the prison backed that up, he said, with many saying Con-ui was often the person who tried to resolve conflicts and encouraged others to get along with the guards, he said.

What did surface in the questioning was that as many as 30 inmates at the prison described being beaten, bullied and harassed at the hands of their captors, he said.

“What we are finding in our investigation is a disturbing pattern of abuse at Canaan,” Fleming said.

Sempa countered that inmates are notorious for lying about abuse and that the defense hasn’t raised any allegation of guards abusing Con-ui personally. The overly broad records request — some of the information being sought spans the country for decades — is irrelevant to what happened to Williams at Canaan two years ago, he said.

“There’s simply no connection. They’re not material,” Sempa said, noting Con-ui knows nothing about the happenings in prisons in Minnesota and California. “I don’t see how it could have any relevance to this case at all.”

The idea Con-ui is a quiet, respectful inmate is also “verifiably false,” Sempa said. Con-ui has been the subject of 39 disciplinary actions dating to 1996, ranging from refusing orders to stabbing another inmate, beating another inmate with a metal food tray and threatening a correctional officer who had just searched his cell, Sempa said.

“This defendant has been violent inside prison,” Sempa said. “Of course, we know he has been violent outside of prison.”

Con-ui, a member of the Arizona Mexican Mafia, is serving 25 years to life for a 2002 murder. He is imprisoned at U.S. Penitentiary Florence in Colorado and appeared by video, wearing an orange jumpsuit. He spoke only once to say, “Good morning, your honor.”

U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo took the arguments under advisement and will rule at a later date.

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