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Federal Prisoner Challenges Constitutionality of Death Penalty; Gets Plea Deal for Life Without Parole

by Matt Clarke

On September 28, 2018, a Vermont federal judge approved a plea bargain to grant life without parole to a death-sentenced federal prisoner who had challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty in post-conviction proceedings.

Donald Fell was convicted of the interstate kidnapping and murder of Teresca King, which he and codefendant Robert Lee committed in 2000. Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005, while Lee killed himself in jail before going to trial.

Fell filed a post-conviction challenge to the federal death penalty in November 2015, claiming disparate racial and geographic application caused it to be applied in an unreliable, arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford agreed that the federal death penalty “operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles,” and that it “falls short of the [constitutional] standard ... for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty.” Nonetheless, he left the possibility of the death penalty in place on retrial, feeling he lacked “authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority of the Supreme Court.” Judge Crawford overturned Fell’s death sentence because the prosecution had used what he determined were unreliable statements made by Lee, which attempted to shift the blame for the murder to Fell. The government appealed.

In July 2018, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling prohibiting the use of Lee’s statements at trial, calling them “unreliable.”

Without that key evidence to prove the extent of Fell’s involvement in the murder, federal prosecutors were open to a plea bargain for life without parole. Judge Crawford accepted that agreement, and Fell became the 10th federal prisoner to be permanently removed from death row, leaving 62 federal death-sentenced prisoners. See: United States v. Fell, U.S.D.C. (D. Vt.), Case No. 5:01-cr-00012-01.

The Department of Justice recently announced that it plans to resume executions, and has set execution dates for five federal prisoners. [See related article in this issue of PLN, p.18]. 



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Related legal case

United States v. Fell