If only 11 out of 12 jury members vote to impose the death penalty, should a new jury be allowed to convene to potentially reach a unanimous and binding verdict?
Eric Williams, a 34-year-old correctional officer at a Pennsylvania prison, was stabbed and killed with a sharpened weapon by inmate Jessie Con-Ui in February 2013.
Although the jury unanimously found Con-Ui guilty, he was spared the death penalty by the 11–1 vote of a lone holdout, who said she couldn’t force herself to vote for death because her son was in jail.
Prosecutors and the victim’s father had sought the death penalty, and many felt the killer had essentially gotten away with it — although Con-Ui was already serving a life sentence for a gang-related murder in Arizona.
What the bill does
Eric’s Law, named after the victim Eric Williams, would allow a new jury to be impaneled if a first jury does not reach a unanimous decision on a defendant’s sentence or punishment.
If that new jury in turn does not reach a unanimous sentence either, then the court (presumably a judge) will issue a sentence, but at that point the death penalty will no longer be permitted.
It was introduced in the Senate on July 25 as bill number S. 2264, by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) — a senator from Pennsylvania, where Eric Williams was from and served as a correctional officer.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill allows for the enactment of the punishment or sentence voted on by as much as 11/ 12 of a jury’s members.
“Officer Eric Williams’s life was senselessly cut short by a violent gang assassin. His murderer essentially received no punishment for his crime, even though eleven out of twelve jurors voted for the death penalty,” Sen. Toomey said in a press release.
“The lack of any consequence in this case highlights a flaw in our justice system that this legislation will address,” Sen. Toomey continued. “I hope my colleagues will swiftly consider this important piece of legislation so no other families have to see violent criminals avoid justice.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill will lower legal standards in our judicial system, and perhaps increase the odds of innocent people mistakenly receiving the death penalty.
“There are only three states that currently allow non-unanimous juries in death penalty sentencing — Florida, Alabama and Delaware,” ACLU of Colorado Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley said in state Senate testimony when Colorado was considering allowing the practice. “There are many problems with non-unanimous juries,”
“A non-unanimous sentence would be seen as less valid and more open to challenge. A non-unanimous jury is more likely to give death after a mistaken conviction,” Woodliff-Stanley said. “And in fact, Florida, with non-unanimous juries, has the highest rate of exonerations after mistaken death sentences in the country.”
“We should not adopt legislation that will make it more likely to execute someone who is innocent, someone who is mentally ill, or someone who is marginalized or poor or who simply did not have good counsel.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted four Senate cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Odds of passage in the Democratic-controlled House are low.