- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Vermont, a famously liberal New England state that abolished capital punishment decades ago, is about to see its first death penalty trial in more than 40 years — a case brought not by Vermont authorities but by federal prosecutors.

Some are wondering why the U.S. Justice Department is making a federal case out of the whole thing.

Jury selection got under way this week in Burlington for the trial of Donald Fell, 24. He is charged with carjacking Teresca King, 53, in Vermont in 2000 and beating her to death nearly 200 miles away in New York as she prayed by the side of the road. The trial is set to begin July 5.

No one has been executed in Vermont since two killers went to the electric chair in 1954. The last time anyone was sentenced to death in the state was 1957. (The sentence was later commuted.) The last time anyone even stood trial on capital charges in Vermont was in 1962.

Vermont’s death penalty law was invalidated in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down capital punishment. And it was finally taken off the books in 1987.

?It’s clear that the state doesn’t want it,? said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ?Yet the federal government is coming in and imposing it on us. They are imposing a system of justice we rejected.?

Despite Vermont’s opposition to capital punishment — and its liberal reputation as the home of gay civil unions, former Gov. Howard Dean and the only self-described socialist in Congress, Rep. Bernard Sanders — one expert said Mr. Fell could end up receiving a death sentence because jury selection in capital cases tends to favor the prosecution by weeding out death penalty opponents.

?It’s pretty bewildering stuff because it’s such an anomaly here. It’s so un-Vermont,? said Michael Mello, a professor at the Vermont Law School. ?I think of Vermont as having a fairly liberal-progressive, political elite.?

Prosecutors say that before the carjacking, Mr. Fell and his accused accomplice, Robert Lee, also fatally stabbed Mr. Fell’s mother and a friend of hers in Vermont. But those slayings are not part of the federal case and no charges have been filed. Mr. Lee hanged himself in prison in 2001.

From the outset, federal prosecutors took charge of the case against Mr. Fell and Mr. Lee, charging them with carrying out a carjacking that ended in a death. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected a plea bargain that would have spared their lives.

Vermont’s Acting U.S. Attorney David Kirby said the federal government had jurisdiction because the crime extended across state lines. And he added: ?No other jurisdiction was particularly interested or wanted to prosecute the case.?

A death sentence would be fine with Mrs. King’s relatives.

?He murdered three people in less than eight hours. What is the death penalty for if it’s not this?? said Mrs. King’s sister, Barbara Tuttle. She added: ?Even though he’s locked up and behind bars, he can still communicate with his family, he can make friends. When I want to visit my sister, I have to go to the cemetery.?

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