RUTLAND — Refugee resettlement dominated headlines for much of the year, but there were plenty of other big stories. The Rutland Herald, one of the country’s oldest family-owned newspapers, was sold to out-of-state buyers. Dozens of motions filed in the upcoming retrial of Donald Fell, charged in the 2000 killing of North Clarendon resident Teresca King, led to hearings on the constitutionality of the death penalty. Unless Judge Geoffrey Crawford grants a motion for a change of venue, that trial is set to begin in U.S. District Court in Rutland early next year.
Mayor Chris Louras announced in April that his city was being considered as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The issue divided this small city, exposed long-simmering tensions between the Board of Aldermen and the mayor, and made national headlines. Rutland was seen as a microcosm for the larger national conversation over refugee resettlement and national security, one that would come to define not only local but presidential politics.
The mayor was faulted for not consulting, let alone informing, the Board of Aldermen and other local elected officials before his April 26 announcement. The mayor spent the following day answering pointed questions about the program from Rutland County’s legislative delegation. The questions have dogged him since, and some have cast the upcoming mayoral election as a referendum on his handling of the process.
The aldermen went further and in late July, after meeting in executive session, voted to investigate whether the mayor’s actions had violated the city charter.
In mid-September the city’s attorney, Charles Romeo, issued a 26-page report that cleared the mayor of any wrongdoing. Two weeks later the State Department announced that Rutland had been approved as a resettlement site and refugees would begin arriving in December or January.
The public debate at least in Rutland was put to rest. However, in November after Donald Trump won the presidential election the fate of Rutland’s refugee resettlement program was again up in the air. Throughout his campaign Trump said he would halt Syrian refugee resettlement if elected. Many expect him to make good on that promise.
This was a difficult year for the Rutland Herald.
In early August the paper reported that a number of employees’ checks had bounced and several freelancers had not been paid in weeks. The story detailed the paper’s financial difficulties and increasingly tense relations between staff and upper management. It also led to the firing of news editor Alan Keays, who clashed with owner and publisher John Mitchell over a planned follow-up story. (Keays now writes for VTDigger.) Soon after it was revealed that the Mitchell family had entered into talks to sell the paper to two out-of-state buyers.
On Sept. 16 the Herald and its sister paper, The Times Argus in Barre, were sold to Reade Brower, a publisher and businessman in Maine, and Chip Harris, co-founder of Upper Valley Press Inc.
Through a limited liability company, Brower and Harris took on the Herald’s mortgage, allowing the paper to continue to operate. That mortgage was transferred back to the Mitchell family in mid-November. Earlier this month the Herald announced that it had made its first newsroom hire since the sale.
The retrial of Donald Fell, charged in the 2000 killing of North Clarendon resident Teresca King, is set to begin early next year. Dozens of motions have been filed, and pretrial hearings have covered everything from the admissibility of certain kinds of evidence to a possible change of venue and the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.
Over the course of two weeks in July, Judge Geoffrey Crawford heard testimony on whether the death penalty is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It is the first such hearing since the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Glossip v. Gross, which many believe opened the door to legal challenges against capital punishment.
Crawford in his 57-page decision ultimately declined to declare the death penalty unconstitutional but raised serious questions about how it’s applied and whether a fair and impartial jury can be selected in capital cases. In his opening remarks before the courtroom, Crawford said the hearings presented an opportunity to “create a rich factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions.” The implications of Crawford’s ruling could be far-reaching.
The Fell case is now 16 years old, and the defense has argued that its client cannot get a fair and impartial trial in much of the state of Vermont. In a motion for change of venue, the defense cited the more than 600 news articles published since Fell and his onetime co-defendant Robert Lee were arrested in November 2000 and the high level of familiarity with the case among potential jurors.
Members of King’s family, including her daughters, have attended every hearing in Rutland District Court, just blocks from where King was kidnapped. At the close of hearings on the motion for a change of venue, King’s daughter Karen Worcester said, “It’s important for the family to be here to represent our mother. Or she’s just words on paper.”