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.


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