Death penalty trial begins

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(Host) Vermont’s first death penalty trial in decades gets under way this morning in federal court in Burlington.

Under a plea agreement reached three years ago, 25-year-old Donald Fell would have served life in prison. But Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected the deal.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the Fell case is part of a national trend in which the Justice Department overrides local prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

(Dillon) The death penalty case has drawn protesters every week to the federal courthouse in Burlington. They say it’s wrong for the government to take a life, and that capital punishment unfairly targets minorities and low income people.

But they’re also upset that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft essentially forced capital punishment on Vermont, where the death penalty has not been used for fifty years.

Sandy Baird is a Burlington lawyer and activist.

(Baird) “I think that the federal government is intent on crushing those states who oppose the death penalty. I think they want us to all to accept their version of justice, which is to execute people. And I think Vermont has resisted that for a long time. I think that’s what the federal government is doing; it’s kind of shoving it down our throat against our wishes.”

(Dillon) Donald Fell is charged with the kidnapping and murder of 53-year-old Terry King. He and his accomplice allegedly stole her car, drove her to New York State, and then killed her as she prayed by the side of the road.

In 2002, Fell had agreed to plead guilty to the federal charges and accept life in prison without parole. But Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time, ordered local prosecutors to instead seek the death penalty.

Kevin McNally is a lawyer in Kentucky with the Death Penalty Resource Counsel, a group that assists public defenders in capital cases. He’s studied the death penalty decisions of the Justice Department, and says the Fell case is part of a national trend. According to McNally, Ashcroft, has allowed local prosecutors far less autonomy in capital cases than the previous attorney general, Janet Reno.

(McNally) “Well, Attorney General Ashcroft overruled local prosecutors approximately twice as often as Attorney General Reno. The other difference is that he overruled prosecutors only, for the most part, only in one direction, which is towards the death penalty.”

(Dillon) The human rights group Amnesty International says the Justice Department has increasingly argued for capital punishment in places where state law wouldn’t allow it. Josh Rubenstein is the group’s Northeast director.

(Rubenstein) “Under the Bush Administration, if a state did not have the death penalty, like Massachusetts, like Vermont, or like New York today, that would be a factor in favor of seeking a federal capital indictment. And so you have more of these cases in states than you used to have.”

(Dillon) Terry King’s family pressed hard for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Barbara Tuttle, King’s sister, is gratified the Justice Department trumps state policy on capital punishment.

(Tuttle) “The federal government is the higher authority. And they really oversee all of the United States. And the only thing that made this a death penalty case is that he kidnapped her and he took her across state lines. That’s one of, if you can call it, some type of a solace is that we were able to go for the death penalty, because that’s what he did.

(Dillon) The Fell trial will take place in two stages. The first will determine his guilt or innocence. In the penalty phase, the jury will be asked to consider death, or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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