(Host) On opening day of Vermont’s first death penalty trial in decades, the defense acknowledged that Donald Fell is responsible for carjacking and murder.
The unusual strategy shows that Fell’s lawyers plan to focus their efforts on the penalty phase of the trial, when the defense will try to convince the jury to spare Fell’s life.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kelly began by focusing on the victim in the case. He described Terry King’s last morning – how she woke up before dawn on November 27, 2000, put on her favorite pink sweater, kissed her husband good-bye and drove to her job at the Rutland Price Chopper.
King never made it to work. Two men kidnapped her from the parking lot, stole her car and drove to New York state, where they beat her to death.
Prosecutors say the two were Robert Lee and Doanld Fell. Authorities allege that they were on the run after killing two people in Rutland earlier that night, one of them being Fell’s mother. Lee died in prison. Donald Fell now faces the death penalty for the carjacking and murder of Terry King.
Although Fell has pleaded not guilty, defense lawyer Alex Bunin basically acknowledged his client’s involvement in the murders. But he said Fell showed remorse almost immediately, and that the crimes followed a life history of abuse and alcoholism.
But the defense lawyer’s statement prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow to ask why they were having a trial. Judge William Sessions said he had the same question. The judge said – quote – “it’s become quite clear that where this case is in dispute is not the guilt phase.”
That was a reference to the penalty phase of the trial, when the jury will weigh death or life in prison without parole.
On the sidewalk outside the courthouse, King’s sister said she was also perplexed by the defense strategy.
(Tuttle) “Well, we’re a little surprised that they’re actually getting up there and admitting that he’s guilty to all of the four counts that are against him. I’m kind of wondering why we’re in the guilt phase of the trial; maybe we should just be in the penalty phase.”
(Dillon) In 2002, Fell had agreed to plead guilty and accept a sentence of life in prison. But King’s family pressed hard for the Justice Department to seek the death penalty. And Attorney General John Ashcroft ultimately rejected the plea deal.
The state last executed a prisoner in 1954. On Monday, a coalition of clergy and social activists spoke out against the death penalty.
Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell said the Bible teaches that everyone is capable of redemption.
(Angell) “We must not perpetuate the crime of murder by becoming a society that kills for retribution. We must honor the lord’s right to grant the time and the mercy he wishes to allow the sinner in hopes that he will repent, and maybe even rehabilitate. I believe we have reached that moment in history when as a civilized people we ought and need to find solutions that are not as uncivilized.”
(Dillon) Former Governors Phil Hoff and Madeliene Kunin criticized the Justice Department’s role in the case. Governor Kunin:
(Kunin) “So it is not a Vermont issue. It is a federal issue. And I frankly think it is inappropriate. It is inappropriate to tell Vermonters that’s what they have to do in cases that are tried in Vermont.”
(Dillon) Donald Fell’s trial is expected to last several weeks.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.