(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin has been following the trial of Donald Fell and reflecting on the death penalty.
(KUNIN) The capital punishment debate has come to Vermont – uninvited. No legislator, governor or other official has called for a renewal of capital punishment in this state. It’s the federal govern- ment which has foisted this debate on Vermont because the confessed murderer, Donald Fell, crossed state lines to kill Terry King.
Vermont has not executed anyone since 1954, when Donald Demag was executed for robbery and murder. I signed the law that struck capital punishment from the books in 1987. For the last half century, we Vermonters have reached a quiet consensus that the death penalty is not an issue in our state. That is why prosecutors recently reached a plea deal that Donald Fell would receive a life sentence without parole. Everything had been worked out to the satisfaction of both sides.
Then, in stepped Attorney General John Ashcroft, who demanded a capital trial. It seems strange that an administration which be- lieves in a more modest role for the federal government should strongarm the state of Vermont on capital punishment. We didn’t ask for their help. But they came anyway.
No doubt some Vermonters may welcome this step, particularly the victim’s daughters. They deserve our sympathy and under- standing, but killing Donald Fell will not bring back Terry King. Life imprisonment with no hope of parole is a severe punishment which will prevent Donald Fell from killing again. Capital punishment is not necessary to protect society, and there is no evidence that it has been a deterrent.
Approximately 3,500 people are on death row today. Virtually all are poor, many are mentally retarded, and more than 40 percent are African American. Most of the executions have taken place in 10 states in the south, with Texas leading the pack. Recent DNA tests have revealed that mistakes have been made, the innocent have languished on death row, and some of them have been put to death.
There is no equal justice with the death penalty. If you’re poor and uneducated, your chances of receiving the death penalty are high. If you can pay for top notch lawyers, you’re likely to end your days in prison or go free.
Vermonters – by their silence – have spoken. We don’t want or need the death penalty here.
Let us decide if and when we want to restore the death penalty to Vermont. And let us tell the federal government, thanks but no thanks. We can decide this for ourselves.
This is Madeleine May Kunin.
Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.