Fell guilty of all counts in slaying
By Alan J. Keays
Herald Staff | June 25,2005
BURLINGTON — A federal jury on Friday found Donald R. Fell guilty of all charges in connection with the abduction and slaying of a North Clarendon woman.
Jurors will now decide if he should pay for the crimes with his life.
The jury deliberated a little less than two hours before returning the verdict shortly after 4 p.m. Friday in U.S. District Court in Burlington. Testimony in the penalty, or punishment, phase of the first death penalty trial in Vermont in nearly 50 years will start Tuesday.
The jury of seven men and five women found the 25-year-old Fell guilty of federal charges of carjacking and kidnapping, both with death resulting, in the slaying of Tressa King, 53, of North Clarendon, on Nov. 27, 2000. Both charges carry the possibility of the death penalty.
"Now he's not innocent until proven guilty; he's guilty," Lori Hibbard of Rutland said late Friday afternoon outside the courthouse, after the verdict. "One part is done and now we have the next part, the penalty phase, the most important part … Hopefully everything is going to go OK and we're going to get justice for my mother."
Barbara Tuttle of North Clarendon, King's sister, also spoke outside the courthouse.
"We wanted a jury to decide it and they did," Tuttle said through tears. "Now we just hope they go to the second phase and they give (Fell) the death penalty."
The verdict came as little surprise, as Fell's attorneys mounted almost no defense to charges against their client, essentially conceding Fell's guilt and appearing to focus more on trying to spare their client's life in the upcoming penalty phase of the case.
"The jury did what was fair based on the evidence," federal public defender Alexander Bunin said after the verdict. "Now we're going to start the real case."
Asked to describe Fell's reaction to the verdict, Bunin replied, "He continues to express remorse. He's sorry for the King family and he understands what the process is and he's willing to go through it."
In addition to the capital charges, the jury also found Fell guilty of two federal firearms offenses.
As a result of the verdict Friday, Fell faces at least life in prison without the possibility of parole, and a maximum sentence of execution.
Fell, dressed in a gray button-down shirt, black pants and dark sneakers, showed little emotion as the verdict was announced. He sat at the defense table, looking straight ahead with his chin in his left hand.
King's family, seated in the courtroom behind the prosecutors, appeared to show relief.
The penalty phase of the case is expected to start Tuesday and run all week, concluding sometime the following week.
The trial started Monday and the jury listened to four days of witness testimony and attorney arguments before beginning their deliberations Friday afternoon.
Fell's attorneys presented no defense, and Fell did not take the stand.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow delivered a multimedia closing argument that ran more than an hour. His address featured a series of crime-scene images displayed on monitors in front of the jury and audio excerpts from Fell's recorded police statements.
"What Donald Fell did to Terry King was one of the most cruel and remorseless crimes that one could imagine," the prosecutor said.
He argued that Fell and his alleged accomplice, the late Robert J. Lee, were fleeing the scene of a double homicide in Rutland the night they kidnapped King in Rutland as she arrived to work at Price Chopper early on Nov. 27, 2000.
Debra Fell, 47, and her friend, Charles Conway, 44, had been stabbed to death in an apartment on Robbins Street in Rutland. Debra Fell was Donald Fell's mother.
Donald Fell said in a recorded statement played earlier this week for the jury that he repeatedly stabbed Conway to death, while Lee stabbed and killed Debra Fell. Fell said in his statement that he didn't know why he killed Conway, adding that he'd been smoking crack cocaine and drank excessively that night.
The two suspects were arrested in a traffic stop in Arkansas three days later. They were found driving King's 1996 Plymouth Neon with a license plate they had stolen from another Neon in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — a town where the two suspects grew up and stopped before their eventual capture in Arkansas.
Fell has been jailed since his arrest. Lee hanged himself in a Vermont prison in September 2001. His death was ruled accidental.
Although Vermont does not have the death penalty, Fell is facing the possibility of execution in King's death because the charges against him involved crossing state lines and federal prosecutors took jurisdiction.
Fell said in his recorded statement that after King was taken hostage, they traveled out of Rutland, heading south, into New York. Fell said he drove King's vehicle while Lee held a shotgun, later found to be unloaded.
Fell said they stopped after about 4-1/2 hours of driving at a pull-off in Dover, N.Y. King was then beaten to death more than 400 feet from the side of the road.
Fell said in his statement that he pushed King down and kicked her with his boots and Lee used a rock to beat her to death as she prayed for her life.
Darrow said Friday there was no evidence that Fell had used crack cocaine on the night of the killings, and that police who searched his mother's apartment found no drugs or drug paraphernalia other than a small canister that contained some marijuana seeds.
He described the crime scene in the apartment as a "bloodbath."
Darrow called the killing spree a series of deliberate acts by Fell, and took issue with the contention by Fell's defense team that their client was in a drug and alcohol stupor on the night of the killings.
The prosecutor said Fell's actions did not appear to be those of a drunken person, pointing out that Fell took a shower in his mother's apartment after she and Conway were stabbed to death, packed his belongings, and then headed downtown with Lee with a shotgun to find someone to carjack.
"They went out into the night looking for prey," Darrow said. "They were all about getting out of Rutland and getting out of Vermont, no matter what. (Fell) was making cold-blooded, rationale decisions."
The prosecutors said Fell did not talk in his statement of being impaired while driving King's vehicle.
Darrow also held up to the jury the steel-toed boots, now sealed in a plastic clear evidence bag, that Fell wore when he kicked King. The prosecutor also held up the black Mossberg 12-guage shotgun used to force her back into her car.
"It's hard to imagine anything more intimidating then that at 3:30 in the morning," Darrow said, holding the weapon in the air.
Bunin then spoke, addressing the jurors for about 15 minutes, telling them that his client's actions on the night of the killings were not planned or scripted.
"What you heard about was a chaotic scene in the apartment on Robbins Street," the defense attorney said. "There was some serious drinking going on."
Bunin stood by his contention that Fell used crack cocaine that night, and that Fell's actions showed that he was not in a clear state of mind. The defense attorney said after Fell killed Conway and his mother was stabbed to death, his client took a shower, but put the same clothes back on he wore during Conway's stabbing.
Then, Fell left the apartment with Lee, leaving behind the two knives used in the slayings on the kitchen table wrapped in a towel, Bunin said.
After King was killed, the defense attorney said, Fell and Lee then drove to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where they grew up and spent most their lives.
"Where did they go? Bunin asked the jurors. "The only place in the world everybody knows them."
The defense attorney also disputed the prosecutor's contention that Fell spoke with no emotion and matter-of-factly in his statements to police.
"Listen to them and decide," Bunin said of the recorded statements. "Are you listening to a robot or are you listening to a scared 20-year-old?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kelly was then given the chance to address the jury one last time before they started deliberating Friday.
"Donald Fell was doing what he has always done — not accepting responsibility, blaming others and minimizing his role," the prosecutor said. "He needs to accept full responsibility. You need to hold him accountable."
Attorneys are expected to return to the court late Monday afternoon to discuss the admissibility of certain evidence in the penalty phase of the case.
Jurors were told to return to court Tuesday morning, when that penalty phase of the case will begin.
Contact Alan J. Keays at email@example.com.