MONTPELIER, Vermont — A U.S. District Court judge Thursday ordered a new trial for a Vermont man on federal death row for the 2000 killing of a supermarket worker, saying one of the jurors did his own investigation into the case while the trial was underway.
In his opinion, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III said the juror, identified in his order as Juror 143, disobeyed multiple court orders to not discuss the case outside of court, thus violating the right of defendant Donald Fell to a fair trial.
"Because of Juror 143's deliberate misconduct, Fell had a jury that was not capable, nor willing, to decide his case solely on the evidence before it," Sessions wrote. "He was therefore denied a fair trial and his conviction and sentence must be vacated."
Fell, now 34, and on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, was found guilty in 2005 and sentenced to death for the November 2000 killing of Terry King, 53, who was abducted when she arrived for work at a Rutland supermarket. She was later killed in New York state.
Vermont does not have a death penalty. After the crime, federal prosecutors agreed to prosecute and seek the death penalty for one of the most horrific crimes seen in Vermont in decades.
Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin said Thursday his office was reviewing the ruling and would have no further comment.
Fell's attorney, Lewis Liman, told the Burlington Free Press he was pleased with the ruling but had not yet studied it in full.
"We are extremely gratified by the Court's decision to grant Mr. Fell a new trial," Liman said in a statement issued to the paper.
King's relatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Fell and his co-defendant, Robert Lee, abducted King from the parking lot of the supermarket shortly after they killed Fell's mother and her boyfriend in her Rutland apartment. No state charges related to that killing were filed.
Lee died in prison in 2001.
Before he went on trial, Fell agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, but the deal was rejected by the Justice Department.
In his appeal, Fell's attorneys argued three of the jurors who heard the case against him committed misconduct. Prosecutors had countered the jurors' actions did not taint the case.
But in his decision, Sessions found the behavior of the other two jurors did not taint the case, but that Juror 143, who visited the Rutland area to see where some of the alleged crimes had taken place, did.
"Juror 143 violated the fundamental integrity of Fell's trial by deliberately undertaking an independent investigation," he wrote.
While Sessions order calls for a new trial, Vermont law school professor Cheryl Hanna said she doubted Fell would go on trial a second time.
"I suspect there will be a plea of life with no parole," Hanna said.