Penalty phase begins in Fell trial

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(Host) The penalty phase begins today in Vermont’s first capital punishment case in almost fifty years. Last week, a jury found twenty-five-year-old Donald Fell guilty of federal carjacking and murder charges.

Now jurors will hear arguments about whether Fell deserves to die for the crimes, or if he should be sent to life in prison without parole.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Fell’s lawyers are expected to argue that he was horribly abused as a child, was high on drugs at the time of the murder, and has shown remorse for the killing.

Barbara Tuttle, the victim’s sister, has attended every day of the trial. She wants the death penalty, and dismisses the defense’s argument.

(Tuttle) “I think it’s a bunch of hogwash. I mean you could talk to every person that you probably could meet, and in one way or another they could say they had a bad upbringing. And trying to use that as an excuse is just unacceptable. There are certain things in life that are acceptable and ones that aren’t, and what he did to my sister is just totally unacceptable.”

(Dillon) Opponents of capital punishment including religious leaders in the state have criticized the Justice Department’s decision to bring the death penalty to Vermont. Burlington Rabbi Joshua Chasan spoke to a rally last week.

(Chasan) “We certainly make no judgment about the response of other people, particularly those whose lives have been affected so grievously. But the reason why we are here is because representatives of this current administration are insistent on dividing us as a people.”

(Dillon) Fell’s lawyers did little to contest his guilt. They’ve promised to present a much more vigorous argument in the penalty phase. Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello has argued capital punishment cases. He says the challenge now is to show Fell as a person deserving of mercy.

(Mello) “What the defense needs to do is to provide context, to persuade the jury by evidence and argument that there is more to Donny Fell as a human being than what he did on the single worst day of his life, that there’s more to the story, there’s more context.”

(Dillon) The penalty phase is expected to last about ten days.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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