Courts & Corrections

Judge denies change of venue for Fell trial

The U.S. District Court and post office building on West Street in Rutland. Photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger
RUTLAND — The upcoming retrial of Donald Fell will be held in U.S. District Court in Rutland following Judge Geoffrey Crawford’s denial of a motion for a change of venue.

Fell’s defense argued he could not receive a fair and impartial trial in Vermont and requested a move to New York state or, at a minimum, outside the Rutland area.

Donald Fell
Donald Fell
Crawford acknowledged the unique circumstances of the case, which have led to greater scrutiny and media attention. The trial is the longest-running death penalty case in Vermont history and the only federal case filed in Vermont in which the U.S. attorney general has rejected an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. Vermont abolished the death penalty in 1972, but the Fell case comes under federal jurisdiction because the victim was taken across state lines.

“Needless to say,” Crawford wrote in his decision released Tuesday afternoon, “this complicated, long-running, and notorious case has received a high degree of pre-trial publicity.” Other factors have contributed to the case remaining in the spotlight.

Fell was tried in 2005, convicted and sentenced to death. However, years later the ruling was overturned due to juror misconduct. During the first trial, which was held in Burlington, a juror visited the scene of the carjacking of Teresca King and other venues related to the case before reporting back to other jurors.

Fell and his co-defendant at the time were charged in the November 2000 killing of King, a North Clarendon resident, in New York state. Fell’s co-defendant has since died in prison.

Over the last 16 years the details of the killing and trial proceedings have been featured in newspapers and on television and online.

In its motion for a change of venue, the defense pointed to the hundreds of news stories on the case and the relatively high level of familiarity with the proceedings, based on a Castleton Polling Institute survey, to argue that Fell would not receive a fair trial in Vermont. According to testimony from Edward Bronson, a retired professor of political science at California State University, more than 600 print articles on the Fell trial have been published since 2000.

Crawford agreed with Bronson’s assessment that the Fell case has “received extensive and continuous coverage over the last 16 years.” However, he found that the results of the Castleton Polling Institute survey conducted in August show there is still a large percentage of eligible potential jurors — about 44 percent — who said they have no knowledge of the case. More than 1,200 people from each of Vermont’s jury divisions were surveyed. About 51 percent said they were familiar with the case.

Judge Geoffrey Crawford. File photo.
Judge Geoffrey Crawford. File photo
“From the court’s perspective, the survey results support a view that a jury drawn from people with little or no recollection of the details of the case is feasible,” Crawford wrote.

“The evidence demonstrates that almost half of the potential jurors surveyed recalled nothing of the case and that a quarter of those who recalled it had not formed a view as to (the) defendant’s guilt,” he continued. “Those two groups add up to more than a majority.”

A change of venue is granted only if the defendant proves he or she cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial in the state where the crimes were committed. The court typically considers four factors: Whether there has been recent, widespread and highly damaging publicity; whether the prosecution has been responsible for that publicity; whether the venue presents an inconvenience to the government and the administration of justice; and whether a substantially better jury can be sworn at another time or place.

In its 2010 ruling in United States v. Skilling, the Supreme Court identified additional factors that should be weighed when considering a change of venue. These included the size and characteristics of the community in which the crime occurred and the amount of time that had passed between the offense and the trial, a longer period counting against a transfer.

The court also rejected the premise that a “circus-like” atmosphere surrounding a trial necessarily leads to the presumption of prejudice. “No circus occurred in the Skilling trial,” Crawford wrote, “and none is likely in this case either.”

Crawford also rejected the suggestion that the jury pool be limited to the northern and southeastern districts, noting that the survey revealed only minor differences between potential jurors across the state.

To prevent a repeat of the juror misconduct that occurred in the first trial, Crawford said there would be “organized and judicially sanctioned visits to the sites in question,” including the Price Chopper parking lot in Rutland where King was abducted on her way to work, which is just blocks from the courthouse.

Fell’s retrial is scheduled to begin in late February.

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Adam Federman

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  • robert bristow-johnson

    life would be so much simpler without the death penalty.

    we could just convict the guy, let his conviction stand, and lock him up forever and be done with it.

  • chris halpin

    We are fortunate indeed in ‘The People’s Judge’.