Vt. Starts First Death Penalty Case Since 1957

A man on trial in Vermont's first death penalty case in 40 years was portrayed by prosecutors Monday as a cold, calculating killer who bludgeoned a woman to death so he could take her car.

"Donald Fell (search) would stop at nothing to escape his vicious crime," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kelly said during opening statements. "He made decisions again and again that led to Terry King's death."

But defense attorneys painted a different picture, saying Fell was heavily intoxicated and later expressed disgust at what he had done.

"He said, 'I don't feel like I want to be alive right now,'" attorney Alexander Bunin said.

Fell, 25, is on trial for the death five years ago of Terry King, 53. Prosecutors say King was murdered as part of a grisly killing spree during which Fell and Robert Lee, who hanged himself in prison in 2001, also killed Fell's mother and a friend.

Vermont has no death penalty, but Fell was charged under a federal capital murder law because the victim was abducted in Vermont and then murdered in New York.

Defense lawyers hope Fell's background of neglect and abuse will help persuade jurors to spare Fell's life if they find him guilty of murder.

Fell started drinking in the third grade and began using cocaine, marijuana and LSD soon after, according to court documents. He was abandoned by his father at 10 and by his mother three years later. A doctor who evaluated him called Fell "the most drug-abusing and chronically intoxicated individual" he had ever evaluated.

King was abducted when she arrived for work at a Rutland supermarket. She was bludgeoned to death as she prayed and pleaded for her life in New York state. Fell and Lee were arrested three days later in Arkansas driving King's car.

"They were murderers on the run. And she had served her purpose," Kelly said.

In 2002 federal prosecutors and defense attorneys had reached a plea deal to have Fell plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. But that deal was struck down by the Justice Department, which insisted on the death penalty.

The most ardent supporters of the death penalty in the case have been King's relatives, some of whom are taking leaves of absence from their jobs to attend the trial.

"He murdered three people in less than eight hours. What is the death penalty for if it's not this?" said King's sister Barbara Tuttle.

The Fell case has taken on a high profile among federal death penalty watchers across the country. In 2002 U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III (search), in a ruling as part of the Fell case, said the death penalty was unconstitutional. His opinion was subsequently overturned by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (search) in New York.

Vermont hasn't executed a prisoner since 1954 and the last time a defendant was sentenced to death was in 1957, although the defendant in that case was later pardoned.

The jury will decide the case in two phases. The first will be guilt or innocence. If Fell is found guilty, the jury will then decide if he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.