2017-06-04 18:48:42 UTC
The Public Pulse: Vengeance that can become murder by the state
June 1 Public Pulse writer Bernadette Mollica ("Let's clear out death row")
made a great case for those of us against the death penalty. When she stated,
"Let's stop beating around the bush, an eye for an eye," she was right on
The death penalty is plain and simple vengeance and murder by the state. When
she writes, "We have a lot of executions to carry out, let's stop beating
around the bush," she makes the point about how such a rush to carry out the
death penalty has put many innocent people on death row who later have been
proven innocent - some, unfortunately, after they were executed by the state.
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan changed his position on the death penalty when
law students at Northwestern University proved the innocence of a number of
people on death row.
No study has ever shown the death penalty to be a deterrent. It works well as a
deterrent to the person executed. But so does life in prison without parole.
China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen are the company we keep as far as countries
that still allow the death penalty. That says a lot.
Mike Dohmen, Hickman, Neb.
(source: Letter to the Editor, Omaha World-Herald)
It is time to reevaluate Idaho's death penalty
No person in Idaho has been sentenced to die since 2004, but this hiatus may
come to a close as some prosecutors seem poised to pursue new capital cases.
Given the realities, it seems fitting to once again reevaluate Idaho's current
death penalty. When examining the effectiveness of capital punishment in Idaho,
one must objectively measure the system's efficiency in terms of risks, costs,
and its ability to meet its purported goals.
Idaho has a poor record with the death penalty. 3 people have been executed,
and one has been released from death row because he was wrongly convicted.
Based on this error rate, the risks are clearly far too high, especially when
you consider that we are talking about people's lives, but unfortunately these
dangers cannot be sufficiently mitigated. Wrongful convictions often stem from
mistaken eyewitness testimony, reliance on unscientific forensic methods, and
official misconduct. Due to the human element, wrongful convictions can and do
In addressing the Idaho death penalty's financial cost, a 2014 study found that
Idaho's capital cases are far more expensive and take much more time to resolve
than similar non-capital cases. The study measured the death penalty's costs in
time rather than dollars. Researchers found that capital trials took 20.5
months to reach a conclusion while non-capital trials took 13.5 months. The
appeals also require more time too. The State Appellate Public Defenders office
spent about 44 times more hours on a typical death penalty appeal than on a
life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to
about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant).
Time is money. All the extra time spent on death penalty cases means higher
costs to the state. Data gathered from neighboring states with the death
penalty help quantify these costs. In Utah, for example, each death penalty
case costs around $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole case. Washington
state faces a similar problem according to a Seattle University study that
found that each death penalty case costs an average of $1 million more than a
similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million versus $2.01
million). This is taxpayer money not well spent
One of capital punishment's alleged primary goals is to deter future crime, but
does it actually achieve this goal in reality? In fact, recent studies find
little evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against crime.
The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower
than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since
1990. Furthermore, a 2008 poll of 500 police chiefs in the United States found
that police chiefs ranked the death penalty last when asked to name what was
"most important for reducing violent crime." Again, we see that the death
penalty falls short of living up to its purpose, but it fails in other ways
The death penalty is a lengthy process. It is as such because a life is on the
line. Therefore, mistakes cannot be made. Although necessary for ensuring
accuracy, this lengthy process only prolongs the grief and suffering felt by
victim's families. Capital punishment is often seen as a means of attaining
retribution for the crimes committed against a family's loved one. However, the
long and stressful process ultimately delays the victim's family's efforts to
begin healing. Additionally, because the death penalty is pronounced to be
reserved only for truly 'heinous' crimes, a lesser sentence sends the message
to victim's families that their loss is not as important as others.
It is evident that the death penalty wastes taxpayer money and falls short of
meeting its primary goals - deterring crime and helping victims' families. In
referring to their pledge for fiscal responsibility, the Idaho GOP platform
states, "Programs which are not cost effective or have outlived their
usefulness should be terminated". The death penalty in Idaho certainly fits
that description, and needs to go.
(source: Katherine Dwyer was a recent Charles Koch Institute Communications
Fellow with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of
EJUSA. Dwyer has spent much of the past year residing in
Public defender pens book on experiences representing death row inmates
Defense attorney Michael Lasher answers his phone. There's a convicted killer
on the line.
David Bollinger is housed on death row inside the Ely State Prison, where he
has spent 23 years for the murder of an elderly Reno couple. The jury found the
former temporary worker had kidnapped and killed James and Rose Vertres in
1992, setting their bodies on fire.
Now Bollinger languishes inside a small solitary cell, awaiting his turn to
He dials Lasher from a pay phone not 60 feet from his medieval lockup. Dressed
in his prison blues, he stares straight ahead at a cinder-block wall during a
rare bit of contact with the outside world.
Lasher is Bollinger's lawyer. At age 50, he's a slight man with boyish,
oversized glasses and curly red hair. He resembles a young Buddy Holly or Woody
Allen, a teen still awaiting his growth spurt, but with the emotional scars of
somebody who's been around.
The veteran capital punishment defense attorney took on Bollinger's case after
moving to Las Vegas in 2015 as a new member of the federal government's public
defender's team. He took the call inside his cluttered downtown office, whose
passageways reek from the decay of case files that line the walls.
These phone meetings are haphazard. Frequent prison lockdowns triggered by
inmate violence means Lasher can wait for calls that never come. More often,
Bollinger and Lasher rely on rudimentary "kites" traded through the prison
"Hey, David," he says informally, as though greeting a fellow lawyer, or a
They discuss Bollinger's appeal for a retrial that cites judicial bias based on
the public defender's alleged conflict of interest. The lawyer says he took a
rare Sunday off the day before, a break from the relentless grind of the
appeal. Bollinger is glad.
Lasher knows what he faces. The case contains "bad facts," including that the
couple's bodies were found in flames inside a dumpster. Still, thanks to his
research, he sees questions unanswered and issues unresolved.
Bollinger maintains his innocence. Evidence suggests Vertres may have killed
his ex-wife, who had divorced him while he was in jail for harassing a
prostitute with a weapon. Vertres had often brought home hookers while his wife
was at work, the investigation showed. The wife had been beaten by her husband
and contemplated running away.
Now Lasher seeks a 2nd day in court for his client - as he seeks his own
Insights and infamy
Lasher is turning his legal experiences into literature. He's writing a memoir
that's largely confessional, exploring how his work with convicted killers has
triggered his own existential doubts.
The book's title, "They Eat Their Own," is not a reference to the incarcerated
but to the lawyers who represent them; a legal clan from which Lasher has for
years desperately sought acceptance. He calls them The Tribe, a deeply flawed
collection of "do-gooder twits, death penalty abolitionists and street
fighters," lawyers often wrongly accused of "fighting dirty on behalf of
Lasher's work is a delicate legal and emotional dance. As he fights for
society's damned and depraved, he confronts his own inadequacies. Despite 25
years as a lawyer - 17 trying capital cases - the sheer complexity of the
appeals, public prejudice against convicted killers and his own fear of failure
conspire against him.
Knowing that hundreds of convicted killers have already been exonerated
nationwide creates a strange pressure. It makes him question his grit and
tactics, makes him feel as clumsy as a dirt farmer performing a finely timed
Late at night, nursing a rye Manhattan inside his downtown home, he admits he's
as emotionally broken as the condemned men he visits - someone who seeks refuge
in risk-taking and self-loathing, convicted killers and troubled relationships.
As a child, Lasher suffered an overbearing father who undercut his self-esteem.
He later sought out doomed relationships with damaged women. He's a pain junkie
whose dogged work ethic disguises his perceived weaknesses. He's a man still
trying to keep his impulses in check. In some ways, he believes, he too is
Like the denizens of death row, Lasher has made bad choices.
"By the grace of God I didn't end up in their place - as regular folks with a
raw end in life," he said. "I've had my share of heightened moments of emotion
where things could have gone very badly. But they didn't. That's why I'm still
on the outside representing the men who are in there."
Along with his work as an attorney, Lasher has also spent years as an
investigator, exploring the backgrounds of his death row clients. He has
traveled the world, seeking insights into their violent behavior, hoping to
uncover new facts or an unreported witness account that might reduce a death
penalty to life in prison. He once traveled to South Korea in search of a
condemned man's hard-to-find birth mother to learn about his difficult
Lasher is unique in this respect; few lawyers do their own digging. Most don't
want to sit on a stained couch, "worrying about getting fleas," he wrote in his
manuscript. "They don't want to watch a witness sob for 3 hours and then be hit
up for 40 bucks."
His work has led him to rifle through fetid garbage cans, "using a stick to paw
soiled clothing." On a stakeout, he wolfed down Chinese food with his hands. He
ventured into a biker's bar seeking an elusive witness, a tough guy who
resembled a "fat overripe tomato" with dirty blond hair, stuffed into a black
There have been moments of Fellini-like farce. Once, as Lasher interviewed a
witness in his home, a caged parrot began chirping in Spanish and English. A
pair of dwarfs then appeared to poke him in the ribs.
In chapters like "How to find those creeps who don't want to be found" and "The
death charm offensive: how to push your real feelings down into your gut for a
good interview," he shows how to scour leads from criminal court files and
facts found in car registration, bankruptcy, sex-offender and hunting-license
records. He corners sketchy characters and sometimes elicits answers once he
He tells of getting a "scared pensioner to unchain the door, let you in, and
talk about things like living in South Central's war zone," about getting "a
reticent family to reveal painful, embarrassing secret beatings and alcoholism
and incest," and shows "how to poke around in a rough neighborhood without
Lasher observes strangers closely, like a social worker. "Some folks are really
poor, living in squalid deep woods trailers with pirated electricity or violent
housing projects with their own subterranean societies. Some live in banal
suburbs, which bum me out more than a sand-blasted house in the middle of an
empty block in the high desert."
Lasher trusts no one; not judges, prosecutors, lazy defense lawyers and public
defenders, witnesses, or even some of his hundreds of clients. As an
investigator, he pursues not whodunits, but "why-dunits" - crimes involving
torture, shuddering violence and multiple victims. Innocence, he says, isn't
the issue in most of his cases.
Still, Lasher believes in redemption. His clients may have done reprehensible
things, but he does not see them as reprehensible people.
'Putting it out there'
Investigator Dave Presson has known Lasher for 20 years. "I knew he was an
outcast, so I didn't think anything would surprise me."
Then he read the manuscript.
"He's really putting it out there," he said. "It's vulnerable and it's raw."
A few years ago, Lasher decided to write the tell-all memoir, to take readers
down a psychological rabbit hole into the realm of capital crime.
There were colorful personalities, including the three female bank robbers who
complained how their male counterparts got all the glory, and the Mafia money
collector "whose every sentence is shouted inches from my face, spit obscuring
He wrote on nights and weekends, producing pages that tracked his evolution
from a novice Northern California public defender to delving into the psyches
They included a schizophrenic white supremacist who murdered a hairdresser and
a plastic surgeon, because he thought they promoted false Aryan vanity people
did not deserve; Richard Allen Davis, who raped and murdered 12-year-old Polly
Klaas in California, and a drifter who killed a university police officer with
Early in his career, Lasher thought he wanted to become an environmental
attorney. He had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and
the Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. One summer, he scored an
internship in the federal public defender's office, representing drunks,
brawlers and thieves in Yosemite National Park.
He litigated before the cantankerous Federal Judge Donald Pitts, a bearded,
long-haired, former smoke jumper with an affinity for bolo ties, colorful vests
and a 160-pound Rottweiler named Bailiff, who accompanied him to court.
"I was hooked," Lasher said.
For 12 years, he worked for the California Appellate Court Project, defending
death row inmates housed at the infamous San Quentin prison. He later took a
Washington desk job for a group seeking adequate resources for condemned
killers. But he missed the trenches - working 1-on-1 with men facing death. He
moved to Las Vegas in 2015 to rejoin the fight.
By then, Lasher was well into his book, in which he argued the injustice of
capital punishment. He wrote of how race plays a role, with blacks being
executed at a much higher rate than whites, how faulty witnesses and
prosecutors withholding crucial evidence have unfairly rendered men to their
"Capital punishment brings out people's worst behavior," he said. "Cops,
prosecutors and judges want convictions ... Justice tends to be greater for
convicted killers. Prosecutors justify their means, saying, 'If this guy didn't
do this one, he did others.' It's a win-at-all-costs mentality."
In his writing, Lasher found he couldn't detail his work without also revealing
"The book became an exorcism of the things I've witnessed," he said. "It's also
a way to process some of my own demons - similar to a 12-Step program."
He asked himself hard questions: "Why was I trying to save the condemned?" and
"Why was I driven to protect mostly nasty broken people?"
As a boy, Lasher had stood up for the underdog. But something happened, twisted
experiences that turned him into a trauma junkie, who focused on the pain of
others to avoid his own issues.
He was a timid boy who gently assuaged his nuclear-physicist father's mercurial
moods, when he threw insults and oil-smeared work rags inside the family's Los
Angeles home. Lasher was later bullied at school. Maybe his trauma does not
reach the level of his condemned clients, but it is there nonetheless.
For years, Lasher also sought out distant, damaged women - a cocaine addict,
narcissist and survivors of sexual assault. He convinced himself that "if I try
really, really hard, and do the dishes and make money and hang on her every
flicker of emotion, maybe, just maybe, she will like me."
Strangely, his co-dependency made him a better investigator. He didn't judge
the people he interviewed, not on the outside anyway.
"The witness kicks his dog? Not a peep from me, even though I'm raging inside,"
he wrote. "... A measure of both my skill and depravity, reviled witnesses
never know of my disgust and ire, buried as they are under my drive to build a
client's case, under my personal and occupational need for approval."
He also questioned the hyper-critical death-row defense community he calls The
Tribe. "They can be mean," he wrote. "Maybe the stress of the work turns us
against each other. And maybe the work attracts bent people, myself included.
People who want to save reviled killers, destroyers of society."
But Presson believes that Lasher stands out from his own tribe of death row
lawyers. "People gravitate to professions and roles that fit their
personality," he said. "But other members of the tribe just don't have the
level of consciousness that Lasher does."
Lasher's own flawed past is a passport into the daily terror in which his
condemned clients grew up; belittled, beaten with an extension cord or a
The stepmother of 1 killer tied him to a bed naked; his father made him eat out
of a dog bowl as punishment. Lasher once photographed the pole to which his
client was tied in his basement.
Even the trauma junkie had seen enough.
"Another basement of horror and fear," he wrote. "How many god----- scary
basements will my career hold?"
In the end, Lasher refrains from judgment - of himself and his community of
killers, those men he views as flawed, but still human.
He describes 1 client as "large ruddy-cheeked, inarticulate, generous, kind and
prone to weeping in the visiting cage at San Quentin."
He admits he only knows the current version of the man, not his drug-use years.
"He was probably a mean jerk then, judging by his crazed mug shot," he wrote.
"Fixed stare, wild hair, mouth a rictus of anger."
He talks of another killer who has his personal phone number, whom he greets
with an obligatory hug. Once, Lasher took his grown daughter to visit the
onetime bank robber, who now resembles a grandfather with his graying beard and
The condemned man took time to advise the young woman on choices not to make.
Lasher sees redemption in that.
Trust and thanks
David Bollinger doesn't want to die; not now, not like this - strapped to a
gurney and force-fed poison. There's little joy in his life as he awaits his
But there is this: He trusts his lawyer.
He and Lasher discuss the progress on their appeal. "I spent the weekend
psyching myself up," Bollinger confides. But his emotions are runaway. In
response to Lasher's optimism, he responds, "We shall see. I'm trying not to
get overly excited about it."
He thanks the lawyer for his dogged belief they can win. "He's willing to go
out of his way to investigate the facts of the case," Bollinger said.
20 years ago, Bollinger spent a night in the holding cell next to the Ely
prison's death chamber. He doesn't want to go back.
He struggles to describe what the experience felt like. "Even the question is
difficult to contemplate," he says. "I really can't define it in my own mind."
As he talks, Lasher listens, tipped back in his chair - a now less-broken man
contemplating the plight of broken people.
(source: Las Vegas Review-Journal)
A lawyer for the toughest cases
When dealing with killers, the best piece of advice Roger Hunko ever received
was upon first meeting them, look for something you like about them.
For Hunko, 70, the venerable Kitsap County defense attorney whose expertise on
death penalty trials involved him in some of the more notable and heinous
Washington state cases through the past 3 decades, it was usually easy.
"I look at people and I like them," said Hunko, who is retiring after first
being licensed in Washington state in 1979. "Although I never expected to know
as many murderers as I do."
Hunko had been co-counsel on the case of Gabriel Gaeta, charged in the 2014
rape and murder of 6-year-old Jenise Wright, but he was released at his own
request earlier this week. Last month the state Supreme Court ruled on another
of his cases, and he has one more hearing, a sentencing for a drug case.
After that, he has no plans to practice again. In fact, he has no real plans at
all except to close on the sale of his home and roam the country in a 24-foot
RV with his wife, Kathleen, and their 2 dogs, Olive and Twinks.
"Just going to go, gypsy life," Hunko said. "I like not having a plan."
For somebody known almost as much for his skill as an attorney as his mellow,
likable demeanor, it may be the most fitting retirement. After all, Hunko took
the law school entrance exam on a whim, after a night of drinking tequila and
playing dice, only to score in the top 9 % in the country.
"I wasn't hung over, I was still drunk," Hunko said.
He estimated that he had been on about 30 aggravated murder cases, and of the
death penalty cases he took, only 1 client was condemned to die - Robert Lee
Yates, convicted in 2002 of murdering 2 women in Pierce County and number 5 of
8 on the state's death row.
Those who worked for him at his firm in Port Orchard, and those who argued
against him in cases where the stakes couldn't be higher, said Hunko was a
straight-forward advocate - professional and passionate - but never underhanded
or abrasive. He lifted weights competently in his younger days and wears loud
shirts, but he is not known for flamboyance.
"He really practiced from the heart," said Kevin Kelly, now chief deputy
prosecutor in Kitsap County District Court. In 1996, Kelly was 1 of the
prosecutors who argued against Hunko in Kitsap County's last death penalty
trial, the case of Steven R. Morgan.
Tina Robinson, Kitsap County prosecutor, was hired by Hunko in 2006 for her 1st
job out of law school. She said he taught her to love her job as a defense
attorney and how to relate to clients as people.
"He will fight till the end for his clients," she said. "He is a great guy with
a great heart and he is a very good attorney."
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on the 4th of July, Hunko was a twin. His brother,
Robert, died as an infant. He was raised in New Jersey and served 4 years in
the Air Force before roaming the country in a Volkswagen bus. He eventually
made his way to Pocatello, Idaho, where he went to college, majoring in
history, and he later decided to give law school a shot. He says now that at
the time, he didn't know what lawyers actually did.
He attributes his success to his time spent working as a bartender, where he
became a student of human nature, as well as his love of puzzles. In ways,
working a case is like solving a puzzle, he said.
"Kind of put it together and make it look right," he said, adding later that in
his early days he languished over preparations, only to change course.
"I found out that I couldn't look at notes and talk to jurors, so I didn't do
it anymore, I just ad lib it," he said.
His opposition to the death penalty cemented following the execution of Ted
Bundy by the state of Florida in 1989. Although the death penalty is still on
the books, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on executions in 2014.
In keeping with his quirky sense of humor, Hunko subscribed to an especially
lurid tabloid for reading material in his law firm's waiting room. Following
Bundy's execution, the tabloid published autopsy photos of Bundy. That did it.
"I thought anything that cheapened life that much can't be good for society,"
He tried death penalty cases all over the state and was the final attorney who
represented Mitchell Rupe, who became famous for being the condemned man too
heavy to hang. Rupe was convicted of killing 2 during an Olympia bank robbery.
A judge found that hanging Rupe - hanging was then the state's only means of
executions - could result in him being decapitated, which amounted to cruel and
Rupe had been sentenced to die in Thurston County twice before, but after those
verdicts were overturned Hunko got the case, and in 2000 he was able to
persuade a single juror to vote no. To receive death a jury must vote
unanimously, so Rupe received life in prison, where he died 6 years later.
Contrary to the urban legend, Hunko says Rupe's attorneys never encouraged him
to keep eating as a way of staving off his execution. Hunko noted that
lawmakers quickly authorized lethal injection, and that Rupe's weight was due
to a medical condition that made him retain water.
He testified about the matter in front of state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
"I told her, but she didn't believe me, it's more salacious to say he ate his
way through it," Hunko said.
Hunko keeps a sense of humor about his cases, but he said some of the facts
would get to him.
"The hardest ones are when children are killed," he said. "Sometimes after
looking at the pictures I have to wait a few days before I go see my client
because I'm still angry. But somebody has to do it."
Although he refuses to admit to any plans beyond a trip to Canada, and then
down to California, he loves food and said he may consider writing a cookbook.
(source: Kitsap Sun)
Life or death? Con-ui case will likely focus on penalty phase
Chino - as he's known on the streets - is a New Mexican Mafia member, drug
dealer and convicted gang assassin.
Starting this week, a federal jury will begin considering whether the
executioner should be executed.
By all accounts, the evidence is substantial that Jessie Con-ui fatally beat
and slashed Correctional Officer Eric Williams, a 34-year-old Nanticoke native,
during an ambush attack at U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan on Feb. 25, 2013. The
bigger question is whether the dozen men and women on the jury can unanimously
agree if he should die for the crime.
"Did you ever try to get 2 people to agree on something?" said Jarrett
Ferentino, a Luzerne County homicide prosecutor who is not associated with the
Con-ui case. "Try getting 12 to agree to take someone's life."
The guilt phase of Con-ui's trial, which is set to begin with opening
statements Monday, is expected to feature video of the grisly 9-minute attack.
Prosecutors say Con-ui, 40, can be seen stabbing Williams more than 200 times
with a pair of shanks - pausing at one point to wash and wrap a cut to his hand
before sitting and chewing a piece of gum and then returning to his cell.
A blood trail led to Con-ui's cell door, where officers found him in possession
of a clear, 6-inch plastic shank, according to prosecutors. Con-ui also made
incriminating statements, indicating he attacked Williams because he was
angered over a previous cell search, prosecutors say.
He later admitted he "overreacted" to the search, court documents allege.
From early on, prosecutors have described their case as containing
"overwhelming" evidence, including the video, eyewitness testimony, DNA
evidence and Con-ui's own admissions. More recently, Con-ui's own defense team
has acknowledged there is "overwhelming evidence of guilt" and that "jurors
will become eyewitnesses to the crime" after viewing the surveillance footage.
Al Flora Jr., a defense attorney and former Luzerne County public defender,
said it's possible Con-ui's lawyers won't put up much fight during the guilt
phase, instead concentrating on trying to prevent Con-ui from getting the death
"They don't want to aggravate the jurors, and they don't want to convey an
impression that they are just presenting frivolous arguments or evidence,"
Flora said. "Their object is to maintain a level of credibility as lawyers
throughout that case so the jury does not get turned off by them."
If Con-ui is convicted, the trial will enter a penalty phase to determine his
fate. Many legal experts agree a number of factors will be difficult for the
defense to overcome.
"I think that the biggest problem for the defense is going to be that he's
incarcerated, he's isolated, and yet he still found a way to kill somebody,
allegedly," Wilkes-Barre defense attorney Theron J. Solomon said. "So I think
that they're going to have a hard time with that with the jury."
A major obstacle the defense will face is getting the jury to see beyond
Con-ui's past, which prosecutors say includes previous assaults, involvement in
a murder conspiracy targeting a cop and a conviction for executing a fellow
gang member in Phoenix in 2002 that landed him a life sentence.
One of the strongest elements working in the prosecution's favor is that Con-ui
allegedly killed a young law-enforcement officer in the line of duty while
already serving life in prison, said Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., a former Luzerne
County district attorney and judge.
"What do you do with somebody like that?" Olszewski said. "The life sentence
the 1st time around didn't prevent another killing. That's pretty weighty,
good, substantive, meaty-type evidence."
The defense team likely began looking for ways to overcome Con-ui's past during
the extensive jury selection process that began April 24, Flora said.
"What you're looking to do is get 1 or 2 jurors who, despite indicating that
they will impose death if warranted by the law and the evidence, nevertheless,
when it comes right down to it, they will struggle to do that," Flora said.
Prosecutors also would have been keenly observing potential jurors' demeanors
as well as their family histories, work records and educational background in
an effort to weed out "people pleaser" types who are easily swayed and "stealth
jurors" who give deceptive answers in an effort to land a spot on the jury,
"You want to find someone that can hold fast to their ideals, that can keep an
open mind when considering the facts of the case and agree that they can follow
the law," Ferentino said.
Assuming prosecutors get that, they could still have an uphill battle in
securing the death penalty. Flora said prosecutors have a heavy burden to meet
because jurors have to unanimously agree on aggravating circumstances. That's
not the case with mitigating factors.
"You don't have to show that mitigating evidence is in any way tied into the
actual crime itself," Flora said. "As the Supreme Court says, a human life is
unique, and the death penalty itself is the most severe form of punishment that
we have. So in imposing that form of punishment, we have to look at the
uniqueness of the background and character of each individual defendant before
we can impose death."
The defense will typically employ a mitigation specialist to look at a
defendant's family history, upbringing, educational background - anything that
can help humanize the defendant, he said.
Ferentino, who was on the team that prosecuted notorious Kingston Twp. killer
Hugo Selenski, said that because the law allows the defense to bring up a wide
range of information about a defendant's background, attorneys go to great
lengths to demonstrate mitigating factors that could spare their clients the
"I've had defense attorneys bring in 2nd-grade teachers to say a child didn't
have a Halloween costume, just in an effort to speak to one juror," Ferentino
said. "Some of it is legitimate. Some of it, I think, is to pull on the
heartstrings of a weak juror."
To counter the deluge of sympathetic testimony jurors are likely to hear about
Con-ui's past and the harsh conditions he's experienced in prison, prosecutors
will need to impress upon jurors that Con-ui continues to be a threat to guards
and inmates despite his previous life sentence, said Olszewski, who
successfully argued child killer Michael Bardo should die for molesting and
suffocating his 3-year-old niece.
No Luzerne County jury has imposed a death sentence since the 1993 Bardo
"You stand before the jury and you're asking 12 folks from your community to
take the life of another member of the community," Olszewski said. "For a
prosecutor, you have to have 100 % conviction in your case and belief in your
case. You have to be zealous about your cause and speak with a passion to
impress the jurors with why this case is so unique and why this defendant
deserves the ultimate penalty."
Even if the jury agrees with the prosecution, however, Con-ui's fate will be
far from certain. Last year, Bardo was resentenced to life without parole after
a split ruling by the state Supreme Court granted him a new sentencing hearing.
"You never know. Even if (death) is given, it's such a maze to navigate through
the appellate state and federal process," Ferentino said. "The question after a
jury's imposition of death is, 'Will the death be carried out?' There's no
doubt this individual, once they're convicted, will die in the hands of the
state. The question is, will they die at the hands of the state?"
Timeline of events leading up to Con-ui's trial
-- 1995 - Jessie Con-ui enters the Arizona state prison system for a string of
vehicle thefts and gets acquainted with the New Mexican Mafia.
-- Fall 1999 - Con-ui is alleged to have agreed to stab other inmates at
Arizona State Prison Complex - Florence.
-- June 2000 - Con-ui is alleged to have assaulted an inmate with a metal food
tray at Arizona State Prison Complex - Winslow.
-- Sept. 19, 2001 - Con-ui emerges from prison a fully engulfed carnal, or
brother, of the New Mexican Mafia.
-- Aug. 25, 2002 - Con-ui executes a fellow carnal, Carlos L. Garcia, outside
an East Phoenix laundry facility for failing to fulfill his obligations within
-- May and June 2003 - Con-ui allegedly conspires in planning a number of
murders, including that of a law enforcement officer, but police arrest him in
a drug trafficking operation before the acts are committed.
-- 2005 - Con-ui is sentenced to 11 years in prison for drug trafficking and
is charged in Garcia's murder.
-- June 2008 - Con-ui pleads guilty to 1st-degree murder and is sentenced to
25 years to life in prison.
-- October 2009 - Con-ui allegedly threatens to hurt a correctional officer at
U.S. Penitentiary at Victorville.
-- November 2010 - Con-ui allegedly stabs another inmate with a shank while at
U.S. Penitentiary at Pollock.
-- Feb. 25, 2013 - Correctional Officer Eric Williams, a 34-year-old Nanticoke
native, is brutally murdered at U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County.
Prosecutors say Con-ui charged at Williams, knocked him down a staircase, then
stabbed him more than 200 times and stomped his head.
-- March 1, 2013 - Hundreds of fellow correctional officers from Canaan and
across the country gather in Nanticoke to pay their respects to Williams and
his family. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey announces the federal Bureau of Prisons has
agreed to expand a pilot program allowing officers to carry pepper spray.
-- March 4, 2013 - A fellow correctional officer from Scranton fatally shoots
himself in a wooded area. Williams' family responds with a statement saying the
family "blames nobody for the death of Eric except the assailant who attacked
-- March 11, 2013 - Con-ui is publicly identified as the suspect in Williams'
death as a federal judge assigns him a pre-eminent death penalty-certified
-- June 25, 2013 - A federal grand jury indicts Con-ui on murder and
-- July 16, 2013 - Con-ui pleads not guilty to the charges.
-- Oct. 2, 2014 - The U.S. Attorney's Office announces prosecutors intend to
seek the death penalty against Con-ui.
-- Feb. 27, 2015 - The Bureau of Prisons expands the pepper spray pilot
program to include all staff in high and medium security federal institutions.
-- Nov. 30, 2015 - Con-ui's attorneys say in court filings that he would plead
guilty if the U.S. Attorney's Office forgoes a capital prosecution. Prosecutors
counter that they will persist with the capital case, which Williams' family
-- March 9, 2016 - President Barack Obama signs the Eric Williams Correctional
Officer Protection Act, allowing thousands of federal prison workers to be
armed with pepper spray. The legislation was cosponsored by Casey and his
Republican colleague Sen. Pat Toomey.
-- Jan. 28, 2016 - U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo rejects defense
efforts to have the death penalty declared unconstitutional, allowing the
capital prosecution to move forward.
-- April 24, 2017 - Jury selection begins.
(source: The Citizens' Voice)
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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