For years, Vermonters have watched the death penalty debate unfold far from this reputedly left-leaning state, which has not executed anyone in nearly a half-century and abolished the death penalty in 1987. But the issue hit home when jury selection began in Burlington in the federal capital murder trial of Donald Fell after years of legal wrangling. Fell, 25, is accused of kidnapping Terry King, 53, from a supermarket parking lot in November 2000. According to the indictment, Fell and an accomplice, Robert Lee, then drove King’s car 200 miles to Dutchess County, N.Y., where they beat her to death in the woods as she prayed.
The indictment said Fell and Lee kidnapped the woman after killing Fell’s mother, Debra, and a man named Charles Conway in Rutland. Lee, who committed suicide in prison, and Fell were arrested in Arkansas three days later. Because the case involved the crossing of state lines, federal authorities claimed jurisdiction. In October 2001, federal prosecutors in Burlington reached an agreement to spare Fell the death penalty, but United States Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected the deal. Jury selection is underway, and and opening statements are scheduled for June 20. In a state that is unaccustomed to capital punishment and violent crime, and that also has a hardy independent streak, the prospect of a jury of Vermonters having to choose between life and death for Fell because of an action of the federal government has been difficult for some to accept.