Vermont hands out rare death sentence

Published June 17, 2006

BURLINGTON, Vt. - A man who kidnapped a supermarket worker and killed her as she prayed for her life was sentenced Friday to die, the first person to get the death penalty in Vermont in almost a half-century.

Donald Fell, 26, was sentenced by a federal judge who once ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

Speaking in court for the first time after years of court appearances, Fell apologized twice in a brief statement for stomping 53-year-old Terry King to death in November 2000 on a roadside in Dover, N.Y.

"The words are inadequate," Fell said, his voice barely audible in court. "I truly am sorry for my crime. What I did was horrible and wrong. I know the wounds will never heal. If it comes down to it in the end that I do die, I understand that it's no less than what I deserve. I truly am sorry."

U.S. District Judge William Sessions III imposed the sentence, which was issued nearly a year ago by the same jury that found Fell guilty.

King's sister, Barbara Tuttle, criticized the judge at the sentencing for the amount of time that has passed since the killing. Sessions' ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional was overturned on appeal.

"For almost six years this family has been held hostage by this court," Tuttle said.

Then she turned to Fell, saying: "There is no way you will ever comprehend what you did to this family, not for lack of intelligence, but because you are less than human."

Fell was the first person sentenced to death in Vermont since 1957, and no one has been executed in the state since 1954.

The state abandoned the death penalty in the mid 1960s, although the law remained on the books for another 20 years.

Federal prosecutors brought charges under a U.S. law that allows the death penalty for a carjacking that results in a death. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected a plea bargain that would have given Fell life in prison.

Death penalty opponents who held a rally against capital punishment Thursday appeared in the courtroom Friday and denounced the federal government for pursuing the case.

Fell's lawyer, Alexander Bunin, said he did not argue against the sentence because federal law required that it be imposed.

But he filed an immediate appeal, which he said would lead to the first direct appeal in 40 years of the death penalty in the judicial district covering Vermont, New York and Connecticut.

"We will continue to defend and stand by Donnie in the years ahead," Bunin said in a statement.

Bunin also thanked King's family for "the courtesy they have shown us."

King was 53 when she arrived at work and was abducted by Fell and his co-defendant, Robert Lee.

The two had just killed Fell's mother and her friend after a night of heavy drinking.

In a confession played at his trial, Fell said he killed King because she could identify him and Lee.

The two were arrested in Arkansas three days later. Lee died in prison by accidental hanging in 2001.

Fell's attorneys didn't contest his guilt, instead asking jurors to spare his life because he grew up in a violent household with alcoholic parents.

The judge assigned the execution to be carried out in Indiana, the site of the federal Bureau of Prisons' death chamber, but said it could be moved to New York state, near where the crime happened.