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Defense attorneys are asking a federal judge to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against an inmate accused of killing a guard at a federal prison in northeastern Pennsylvania


WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania — Defense attorneys asked a federal judge Wednesday to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against an inmate accused of using a homemade weapon to attack and kill a guard at a federal prison in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Attorneys for Jessie Con-ui, 38, asked the judge to declare capital punishment unconstitutional in the case against their client.

Con-ui is charged with first-degree murder in the February 2013 stabbing death of Eric Williams at the Canaan federal prison in Waymart. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, he said little during his appearance by video Wednesday from a federal super-maximum prison in Colorado.

Prosecutors argued last fall that execution would be justified if Con-ui is convicted, citing what they called the defendant's history of violence, including a 2002 murder conviction and what they allege was a premeditated attack on a federal public servant.

Defense attorney David Ruhnke cited declining use of the death penalty and called the system "just too imperfect." He said the federal death penalty "evolves as our society evolves" and should be barred as a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But Justice Department attorney Amanda Haines cited a recent survey she said showed that 60 percent of Americans support capital punishment, particularly in violent cases.

"We haven't quite evolved to the point where we don't want to seek it or impose it, especially in egregious cases like this," Haines said.

Williams, 34, was working in a housing unit at the prison when he was attacked. Prosecutors allege Con-ui was angry after the guard ordered a search of his cell the previous day. They say in court documents that Williams was stabbed more than 200 times; they allege Con-ui also stomped on Williams' head and throat and slammed his head onto the floor.

Jury selection for Con-ui's trial is to begin July 11.

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