Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Fell Sentencing Events

On Friday, June 16th a man was sentenced to die in Vermont. The defendant and a now-deceased codefendant (who committed suicide while in prison) were charged with two death-eligible crimes: carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death. The victim was a woman named Terry King.

You may be thinking to yourself, “What? A death sentence in Vermont?” But it’s the truth and it was made possible thanks to the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) and in this case specifically, Fmr. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Back in 2001, the prosecutors drafted a plea bargain that would have sentenced the defendant to life without possible release in exchange for a guilty plea. But when that was submitted for Ashcroft’s approval, he decided to ignore the Government’s proffer that the defendant’s terrible childhood was enough to mitigate circumstances away from being a death penalty case. The defendant had a childhood that most of us cannot even begin to imagine living through. He suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from practically everyone in his life, witnessed his parents stab each other during a drunken argument, he was abandoned by both of them by the time he was 13. Everyone in his life gave up on him. And then society did by condemning him to die.

Why did the Attorney General choose to dismiss this evidence? Perhaps it was because the case could have been tried in either New York or Vermont and at the time, New York’s death penalty statute had not yet been declared unconstitutional, whereas Vermont hadn’t had a death sentence handed down in its state since 1954. Perhaps it was because a report had just been released by the Department of Justice that cited disturbing statistics about the federal death row. Pursuing a death sentence in this case enabled him to even out some less-than-favorable statistics. Who knows.

Two events were organized by a group I belong to, known as Vermonters Against the Death Penalty (VTADP). The first event was a vigil on Thursday evening to remember victims of homicide. We thought that framing the vigil around this subject was especially important given the fact that revictimization of the victims family members is one of the most disturbing consequences of our broken death penalty system. We were able to draw a modest crowd of 50 people to City Hall Park in Burlington. A notable fact, however, is that we were joined by people from all throughout the Northeast: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The same group of people was featured in the 2nd event, a press conference held on Friday after the sentencing. Each speaker addressed a different aspect within the abolitionist movement including regional trends, their own state’s struggle against the death penalty, and two speakers addressed their own personal experiences with losing a loved one to homicide – refuting the misconception that the death penalty system will help them heal.

The revictimization that VTADP wanted to bring to the public’s attention was glaringly obvious in the victims’ family members’ statements in Friday’s court proceedings. Many, if not all of them cited how grueling the past six years were for them, how they had to endure litigation, uncertainty, compounded with the immense and unimaginable pain of losing someone they loved so dearly. If anyone spoke to the fact that the death penalty system does not provide healing, it was the family members. With every motion that was filed, with every media story, the family was forced to defend the memory of the one they lost. Had the plea bargain been accepted six years ago, they could have been on their way to healing. But we as a society have forced them to endure additional pain, pain that will continue for the next decade as the appeals process begins.

The defendant’s speech was short and almost inaudible over the hum of the air conditioning system. He apologized for what he did and accepted his punishment as “no less than what [he] deserved”. The response of the family members was that it didn’t matter to them; nothing he could say or do would ever elicit forgiveness from them. It is terrible to think that they had to endure losing someone so close to them, and their hearts remain so hardened by the experience. No one should ever have to feel this way.

I can’t imagine having society judge and condemn me based only upon one thing that I’ve done in my lifetime. Can you imagine it? I, myself, along with many reading this have probably done something in their lifetime that they deeply regret doing. I know that I certainly have learned from my mistakes and have allowed such experiences to change me for the better, and I have gained insight from them. Who are we to say that others are incapable of this same process? Does a person’s worst action negate the humanness within them? Their capacity for redemption? The death penalty system wants to convince us that it does.

Well, I’m back in Washington, DC now. Away from the reporters, away from the court room that made me physically ill. Yet, the struggle towards abolition continues. My work with this one case has taught me so much about the death penalty, our legal system, and the injustices that are perpetuated by both. Ever since I became aware of these things, I’ve been unable to cease in my abolition work. I encourage everyone reading this to learn everything they can about the death penalty, because knowledge is empowering. This trial was just one amongst so many with similar, pervasive injustices. This work is disheartening, frustrating, and disappointing. But let me be clear in saying that it is worth it. Nationwide abolition will happen. But only if we persist in our efforts and do not falter. We must never let this be simply work. It must remain our passion, as we continue putting our heart into what we do. It is that which will keep us going when all odds are against us.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Op Ed by Darren Allen

Darren Allen has a great opinion piece in the Times Argus this week. He writes:

As a Burlington jury continues to hear reasons for and against putting convicted killer Donald Fell to death, we here in Vermont would do well to remember why a death penalty case is playing out in a state that outlawed it decades ago.

More than three years ago, the native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., agreed with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to kidnapping and killing Tressa King of North Clarendon in exchange for spending the rest of his life in jail with no chance of parole.

The deal, struck between Fell's defense attorneys and the U.S. attorney's office in Vermont, would have achieved justice by any definition of the word: an admission of guilt and an appropriate relinquishment of Fell's personal liberty.

It also was consistent with Vermont's anti-death penalty ethos and with the state's fundamental decency in tempering all acts of justice with a modicum of mercy.

Alas, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't see it that way. He rejected the plea deal, deciding that execution was the only appropriate ending to this case.

...

It's no accident that we were the first state to outlaw slavery or to give same-sex couples rights approaching those of married couple, or that we are one of the few states left without a death penalty. In this case, it appears that Ashcroft and the Bush administration wanted to use Vermont as a petri dish, to sort of see what could foment in this tolerant place. The prospect of achieving a death sentence in one of the bluest of blue states must be very exciting for the federal government. Wouldn't that just show us how out of touch we all are?

I don't envy the jurors in this case — they have a wrenching decision ahead of them. And I don't think any of us should judge them, regardless of where they ultimately come out.

Of course, the family of the victim was against the plea deal and they, too, have legitimate reasons for seeking the ultimate punishment. They lost a wonderful mother, sister and friend who even tried to befriend Fell and his now dead co-defendant, Robert J. Lee, before they brutally ended her life.

Unlike with the rejected plea deal, the jury's decision in this case will not be the last. If death is imposed — or, frankly, even if it isn't — you can expect years of appeals, appeals that will be brutal for Tressa King's family to endure.

...

But we should remember that without compassion, without mercy, we as a society are tacitly acknowledging that people can't ever change, and that some human life isn't worth a second thought. A society that rejects mercy imperils its very survival.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Rutland Herald Article: 7/1/05

Who is the real Fell?

July 1, 2005
By Alan J. Keays Herald Staff

Attorneys for Donald Fell are expected to describe him as a "respectful" inmate, while prosecutors plan to offer another view, pointing to a videotape they say shows him assaulting guards.

read more here

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Write a Letter to the Editor to Share your Feelings about the DP

Here are addresses. Please comment and let us know what you wrote!

Burlington Free Press
P.O. Box 10, Burlington, VT 05402
letters@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

Rutland Herald
27 Wales Street, P.O. Box 668, Rutland, VT 05702
letters@rutlandherald.com

Times Argus
540 N. Main Street, P.O. Box 707, Barre, VT 05641
letters@timesargus.com

Brattleboro Reformer
62 Black Mountain Road, Brattleboro, VT 05301
news@reformer.com

Join Cherry at the Burlington Farmer's Market

Cherry just wrote to say:

I'm planning to go to the Burlington farmers' market Saturday morning, to collect petition signatures. I'm aiming for nine o'clock, and I'll be at the top of the market, just past the pasta restaurant, fyi. In case anyone else would like to join me.

Please join her! And keep passing out the online petition:

http://www.petitiononline.com/vadp/petition.html

We've gotten people from over 50 Vermont towns -- lets get people from all 251!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Press Release: Death Penalty Opponents to Rally Outside Federal Courthouse

June 28, 2005

For Immediate Release

Contact: Nancy Welch, 802-862-1686; Joseph Gainza, 802-228-2340

Death Penalty Opponents to Rally Outside Federal Courthouse

Burlington--As Vermont’s first death penalty case in decades moves into the penalty phase, opponents of capital punishment will hold a rally and protest outside the US Federal Building where the trial is taking place.

The rally will take place this Wednesday, June 29, at 5:30 pm.

“It’s time to make our voices heard,” explained Rachel Lawler, a student at St. Michael’s College and a member of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, sponsors of the rally.

Nancy Welch, also a rally organizer, agreed. “In the first phase of the trial, we held a silent vigil,” Welch said. “But now we must speak up – and speak loudly – to keep the death penalty out of Vermont.”

The rally follows last week’s “Keep Vermont Death-Penalty Free” panel that brought more than 100 people, including former Governor Madeleine Kunin, to Burlington’s Contois Auditorium. In addition, Vermotners Against the Death Penalty have collected more than 2,000 signatures from Vermonters via both paper and online petitions against any return of the death penalty to Vermont.

Vermont effectively abolished its death penalty more than 30 years ago. However, at the urging of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the U.S. Justice Department used a 1994 federal law to bring a capital case against Donald Fell, who has been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Tressa King of North Clarendon in 2000.

“The Bush administration chose to go after the death penalty in this and 11 other cases at the precise moment when Illinois and Maryland had declared moratoriums against the death penalty, and nationwide people were seriously considering getting rid of capital punishment completely,” noted David Buckingham, a member of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty and employee of Burlington’s City Market.

The rally is sponsored by Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, a coalition whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, the International Socialist Organization, Pax Christi Burlington, the Peace and Justice Center, the United Church of Christ Just Peace Advocates, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Press Release: Death Penalty Opponents, Former Death Row Inmate to Speak Against Capital Punishment

June 17, 2005
For Immediate Release
Contact: Nancy Welch, 802-862-1686; Joseph Gainza, 802-228-2340

Death Penalty Opponents, Former Death Row Inmate
To Speak Against Capital Punishment

Burlington--As Vermont’s first death penalty case in decades gets under way, four prominent opponents of capital punishment will argue for keeping Vermont death-penalty free. All four are part of a public panel planned for June 22, 7 to 9 pm, in Contois Auditorium, Burlington City Hall.

One speaker, Billy Moore, a former prisoner turned Pentecostal preacher, will speak from an insider’s view of death-row. Moore served nearly 17 years on death row for a murder he admits to committing in 1974, when he was a 22-year-old Army private. He came within days of execution when the family of the victim, who had befriended Moore in prison, appealed for clemency. They were joined in their appeal by many others, including Mother Theresa and The
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which dubbed Moore “the saintly figure of death row.”

The Pardons and Parole Board commuted Moore’s sentence to life imprisonment
And one year later, in 1991, he was paroled. He recently published his memoir, I Shall Not Die: Seventy-Two Hours on Death Watch, and has spoken at numerous law schools and universities including Harvard and Yale.

“Many of us oppose the death penalty because in at least one in seven cases, someone sentenced to die later turns out to have been innocent,” explained Nancy Welch of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, sponsors of the panel. “But the Reverend Moore’s story is a reminder that someone can be guilty of murder and over time undergo a dramatic change.”

Other panelists include attorney and former Vermont State Legislator Sandra Baird, whose daughter, Caroline Crichfield Baird, was murdered in 1998, and David Kaczynski, whose brother, Ted, was convicted for the infamous “Unabomber” murders. Mr. Kaczynski is head of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, which recently fought off an attempt by New York Governor George Pataki to reintroduce the death penalty there.

Kaczynski is particularly critical of the use of capital punishment against the mentally ill. His brother, who is serving a life sentence, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Ms. Baird also opposes the use of capital punishment under any circumstances.

Rounding out the panel is Alice Kim, organizer with the National Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Ms. Kim also plays a leading role in efforts to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. In 2000, the state’s Republican governor declared the death penalty “broken” after 13 death row inmates were found to be innocent. Then in 2003, former Governor George Ryan cleared death row completely, pardoning four additional prisoners and commuting the sentences for all others.

Vermont effectively abolished its death penalty more than 30 years ago. However, at the urging of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the U.S. Justice Department used a 1994 federal law to bring a capital case against Donald Fell, who is charged with kidnapping and murdering Tressa King of North Clarendon in 2000. Testimony in Fell’s trial is set to begin June 20.

“It’s not only an attempt to bring the death penalty back to a state like Vermont that had abolished the death penalty,” noted David Buckingham, a student at the University of Vermont who is also active in Vermonters Against the Death Penalty. “The Bush administration chose to go after the death penalty in this and 11 other cases at the precise moment when Illinois and Maryland had declared moratoriums against the death penalty, and nationwide people were seriously considering getting rid of capital punishment completely.”

The United States stands alone among the world’s democracies in its continued use of the death penalty for certain crimes.

“Our aim with the panel is not to make arguments about the crime that Mr. Fell is charged with committing,” explained Allen Gilbert, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. “Our aim is to make sure that Vermonters have a chance to hear arguments against capital punishment, no matter what the crime, from a range of people very close to this issue.”

“We need to remember why Vermont banned the death penalty in the first place,” said St. Michael’s student Rachel Lawler, also a member of the Vermonters Against the Death Penalty Coalition. “We need to talk about how, at both the state and federal levels, we can keep it from coming back for any reason in any form.”

The panel is free and open to the public, with donations accepted at the door. It is sponsored by Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, a coalition whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, the International Socialist Organization, Pax Christi Burlington, the Peace and Justice Center, the United Church of Christ Just Peace Advocates, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.