Judge Approves Plea Deal in Case That Challenged the Constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty

A federal judge in Vermont has accepted a plea deal between Donald Fell and federal prosecutors, permanently removing Fell from death row and ending a case that had raised serious questions about the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. Under the terms of the deal, approved by U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford on September 28, 2018, Fell will serve a sentence of life without parole for the interstate kidnapping and murder of Teresca King in 2000. Fell and his co-defendant, Robert Lee, abducted King in Rutland, Vermont, and drove her to New York state, where she was killed. Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in federal court in 2005, a sentence he could not have received if he had been tried in state court because Vermont does not have the death penalty. Fell's conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial in July 2014 as a result of juror misconduct. Federal prosecutors also charged Lee with capital murder, but Lee committed suicide in prison in 2001 before either defendant's case went to trial. In November 2015, Fell's lawyers filed a comprehensive constitutional challenge to the federal death penalty, arguing based on significant racial and geographic inequities in its administration that it was unreliable, arbitrary, and discriminatorily applied. After a two-week-long evidentiary hearing, Judge Crawford found that the federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles" and "falls short of the [constitutional] standard . . . for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty." He nonetheless allowed the death penalty to remain in the case, writing that as a federal trial judge, he lacked "authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court." Fell's lawyers later unsuccessfully argued based on a March 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a federal sports betting law that the federal death penalty violated the 10th Amendment by conscripting state officials to carry out executions. However, Judge Crawford did grant a defense motion to bar prosecutors from presenting various statements made by Lee by prior to his death attempting to shift blame to Fell for King's murder. In July 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with Crawford, calling Lee's statements "unreliable." The ruling left prosecutors without key evidence to prove the extent of Fell's alleged involvement in the killing, reducing the chances that a jury would return a death sentence in the case. Fell is the 10th prisoner to be permanently removed from the federal death row after having overturned an unconstitutional conviction or death sentence. Sixty-two prisoners are currently on federal death row.

(Alan J. Keays, Judge accepts plea deal; Fell sentenced to life, Vermont Digger, September 28, 2018; Jane Lindholm and Matthew Smith, Awaiting New Murder Trial, Donald Fell Continues Death Penalty Challenge, Vermont Public Radio, August 23, 2018; Alan Keays, Fell gets win on key motion as death penalty case advances to trial, Vermont Digger, July 23, 2018.) See Federal Death Penalty.