Vermont Jury Gets Rare Death-Penalty Case
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
For the first time in 50 years, a jury in the state of Vermont will be asked to consider the death penalty. Vermont, like 11 other states, has outlawed executions. But as John Dillon of Vermont Public Radio reports, this case involves a man facing federal kidnapping and murder charges.
JOHN DILLON reporting:
On the same sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse in Burlington, Vermont, two strongly different views of the death penalty are on display. Nancy Welch stood without about 20 other death penalty opponents.
Ms. NANCY WELCH (Protester): The federal prosecutor's pursuit of the death penalty in this case is not about justice. It is about trying to have a death penalty imposed nationwide, when the people have said, `We're against this.'
DILLON: The protesters have held a vigil here every week since mid-May. Vermont's last execution was in 1954. The Legislature abolished capital punishment in 1987. But 25-year-old Donald Fell faces the ultimate penalty under federal law. He's charged with kidnapping a Rutland woman five years ago, stealing her car and driving her across the state line to New York. Authorities say Fell and his accomplice then beat 53-year-old Terry King to death as she prayed by the side of the road. The murder came at the end of a rampage in which the pair also allegedly killed Fell's mother and her companion.
The carjacking and King's murder are punishable by death or life in prison without parole, and members of King's family, who were walking into the courthouse as the protesters gathered on the sidewalk, say death is what Donald Fell deserves. Laurie Hibberd(ph) is Terry King's daughter.
Ms. LAURIE HIBBERD (Daughter): I play over and over and over again in my head him stomping my mother to death and throwing rocks on her, and I would like any one of those people down there to have Donald take their mother for a ride and hope to God he doesn't need a car to get out of town, because they won't be seeing her again.
DILLON: The family lobbied hard for the death penalty. They found a receptive ear in the Bush administration's Justice Department. In early 2002, then Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected a plea deal struck by the local US attorney that would have sent Fell to prison for life. Kevin McNally is a lawyer in Kentucky with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council, a group that assists public defenders in capital cases. As part of his research he's compared the death penalty policies of the Ashcroft Justice Department with the previous attorney general, Janet Reno. He says the Vermont case is part of a national pattern.
Mr. KEVIN McNALLY (Federal Death Penalty Resource Council): Well, Attorney General Ashcroft overruled local prosecutors approximately twice as often as Attorney General Reno. The other difference is that he overruled prosecutors, for the most part, only in one direction, which is towards the death penalty.
DILLON: Donald Fell's trial will take part in two stages: The first will determine his guilt or innocence. In the second phase, the jury will be asked to consider the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release. In the penalty phase, the jury will weigh the vicious nature of the crime against factors that the defense will argue should spare his life. Fell's lawyers will try to demonstrate that he was horribly abused as a child and that he's shown remorse.
Prospective jurors were asked detailed questions about capital punishment and whether they could fairly judge these mitigating factors. Although Vermont has a liberal reputation, it wasn't that difficult to find 12 people who said they could vote for the death penalty. Barbara Tuttle is Terry King's sister.
Ms. BARBARA TUTTLE (Sister): Just from listening to some of the jurors that have been questioned, I actually am quite surprised that we've had as many pro-death penalty jurors or potential jurors. So there's definitely a disconnect between Vermont Legislature and the Vermont public.
DILLON: There's no recent polling data on Vermonters' views toward the death penalty, but the Legislature has repeatedly refused to reinstate it. Fell's trial is expected to last several weeks. If he's convicted and ultimately sentenced to death, he would not be executed in Vermont but at a federal facility in Indiana. For NPR News, I'm John Dillon.
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