(Host) The penalty phase has begun in the capital punishment trial of Donald Fell. Federal prosecutors say Fell deserves to die for kidnapping and killing a North Clarendon woman five years ago. But defense lawyers urged jurors to choose life without the possibility of release. They say Fell was abused as a child, and has taken responsibility for his crimes.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Two different pictures of Donald Fell emerged in the federal courtroom in Burlington. One is of a calculating, hardened killer; the other is of a young man damaged by an abusive childhood who has tried to turn his life around in prison.
In a methodical opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow said the crime was premeditated and especially cruel. Darrow said Fell stole Terry King’s car to escape from two other killings on the night of November 27, 2000. According to prosecutors, Fell and his accomplice decided to kill King in order to eliminate a witness to the carjacking.
Darrow told the jury that Fell deserved the ultimate punishment for the brutal murder. He said, “We will ask you to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing. We will ask you to return a sentence of death.”
Fell’s lawyer, Gene Primomo, said Fell grew up in a violent household, witnessed his mother and father stabbing each other, and was sexually abused as a young child. He said Fell began drinking when he was six or seven years old.
Primomo said the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. He told the jury, “Five hours of this man’s life doesn’t make him the worst of the worst. At the end, when you go back, you’re going to feel good about choosing life.”
Barbara Tuttle, the victim’s sister, wants the death penalty and doesn’t accept the defense’s argument.
(Tuttle) “He beat my sister to death, and stomped on her with his feet and then wiped his boots on her clothes. To me, that’s pretty heinous and he doesn’t deserve to live. He’s not a life worth saving. I mean, everybody that gets themselves into trouble and knows that they’re going to be facing some kind of punishment for it is going to be, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, please let me live.’ Well, he should have thought about that before he committed the crimes.”
(Dillon) Before the arguments began on Tuesday, Judge William Sessions ruled that prosecutors could not show jurors close up photos of the victim’s beaten face. He said that based on his own reaction, the pictures would make it difficult for jurors to be fair and impartial.
The judge also gave jurors preliminary instructions to keep in mind as they weigh the evidence in the penalty phase. He said the jurors must decide unanimously that the crime qualifies for capital punishment. But he said that even if jurors find the murder was especially heinous, they don’t automatically have to impose the death penalty.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.