On Nov. 27, 2000, 20-year-old Donald Fell, along with his accomplice Robert Lee, carjacked 53-year-old Terry King, drove her into New York and beat her to death by the side of the road. Fell allegedly stole King’s car in his hometown of Rutland, Vt. to escape the state after having murdered his mother Debra Fell and her friend Charles Conway hours earlier.
Later, in trial, prosecutors accused Fell of committing a pre-meditated murder, killing King because of her ability to identify him. According to an article in The New York Times, Fell beat King so savagely that he knocked out her teeth, which were found next to her body. The defense claimed that their client endured years of physical and sexual abuse, diminishing his ability to make correct moral decisions. Nevertheless, Fell was convicted and sentenced to death.
Although Vermont abolished its death penalty in 1987, authorities charged Fell under federal law for taking King across state lines. This marks the first death penalty case in Vermont in 50 years. Fell’s accomplice hung himself in prison in 2003.
For his appeal Fell’s lawyer enlisted the help of Cornell Law School’s Death Penalty Project. The project, founded in part by director John Blume, aims to provide law students with the opportunity to participate in the defense of death row inmates as well as to provide information and assistance to attorneys representing these inmates. The project does not always accept requests to assist in cases of capital punishment but chose this one for its rarity.
“The case was interesting because it was the first death sentence in New England in a long time,” Blume, a professor of law, said.
This is Fell’s first appeal after being sentenced to death; the appeals process could potentially last for an indefinite amount of time.
“This appeal is based specifically on evidence presented in trial,” explained Blume.
Students involved in the project will analyze the case, reading its transcript in search of potential legal errors. Examples of these legal errors could include whether or not a particular juror should have been selected or where the trial should have taken place. Students will then decide which legal issues to raise during the appeal and will assist in drafting a brief focusing on the reasons Fell should receive another trial. Blume will serve as co-counsel during the appeal.
Although the project takes no stance on capital punishment, Blume said that he opposes it: “The death penalty operates in an unfair and arbitrary manner.”
Blume named people without means, people of color, the poor and impaired as examples of those who most often receive the punishment.
“I think it’s really like a lottery,” he said. “There are thousands of murders a year, and only a handful of people are selected [for the death penalty].”
Blume went on to say that this “lottery” is rigged by the factors mentioned previously.
Kristen Stanley law ’07, who is involved with the case, concurred with Blume.
“The state doesn’t have the right to impose capital punishment,” she said. “Capital punishment demonizes people, creating an us-versus-them mentality.”
Moriah Radin, a fellow law student and Stanley’s colleague in the project, expressed frustration with Fell’s sentence.
“I just don’t understand what function it’s serving,” she said.
Although these two students do oppose the death penalty, some in the project are in support of it.
Blume said that, depending on the situation, life without parole would be the appropriate punishment for most capital offenders.