The decision by U.S. District Judge William Sessions to overturn the 2005 conviction of Donald Fell for the murder of Terry King, of North Clarendon, was a bitter disappointment for the victim’s family. But misconduct by one of the jurors who had sentenced Fell to death left Sessions with no alternative.
Everyone deserves a fair trial by an impartial jury. That is a bedrock principle embedded in the Constitution. Unless the courts adhere to fundamental principles of fairness, even in cases of the most heinous crimes, then democracy is undermined.
There is no question that the crime Fell was convicted of was a heinous one. The jury found that he and an accomplice had kidnapped King at the Rutland Shopping Plaza in order to steal her car, and when they reached New York state, they brutally murdered her. The two were fleeing a house on Robbins Street in Rutland where they had murdered Fell’s mother and her friend.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty in the case, and the same jury that had convicted Fell of the crime sentenced him to death. But in seeking the death penalty, the prosecution also ensured that the fairness of the process would be subjected to a heightened degree of scrutiny.
In his ruling overturning Fell’s conviction, Sessions cited several Supreme Court decisions. “The penalty of death is qualitatively different from a sentence of imprisonment, however long,” said one. And because of that difference, a reliable process is all the more important. In another ruling the court stated, “The right to an impartial jury is nowhere as precious as when a defendant is on trial for his life.”
In hearings after his conviction, Fell’s lawyers exposed misconduct by one of the jurors that robbed him of his right to trial by an impartial jury. To compound his misconduct, the offending juror, known as Juror 143, later lied in court to cover up his actions.
The jurors had been reminded of the ground rules repeatedly. They were not to discuss the trial with anyone outside of the courtroom. They were not to expose themselves to information about the case outside the courtroom. These strictures are followed to ensure that the verdict is based on evidence presented fairly at trial and that jurors are able to view the evidence with impartiality.
Juror 143 knew about these rules and knowingly violated them. The court found that he took it upon himself to visit the site of the crime, along with a girlfriend. He said he wanted to see for himself the places where the murders and kidnapping took place.
How did this taint the process? In deciding whether to condemn Fell to death, the jurors had to consider whether the crime was premeditated or whether it was impulsive and carried out in a haze of drugs and alcohol. The jurors also had to consider mitigating factors, such as the abuse and squalor that characterized Fell’s early life. In visiting the site of the murders and the route that Fell and his accomplice walked between the house and the shopping plaza, Juror 143 was deciding for himself, outside the courtroom, the degree of premeditation that was likely to have occurred and the degree of squalor to which Fell was or was not exposed.
For the court not to respond to juror misconduct when it occurs is to allow the judicial process to be corrupted. A message must be sent and precedents established for all future juries that when a juror decides to defy the orders of the judge in order to check out a crime scene on his own, he is putting the entire trial at risk.
Sessions was mindful of the pain his ruling would cause. “While the court is reluctant to turn back the clock on a matter that has required such significant resources in terms of time, effort, and, for some, emotion, it sees no alternative given Juror 143’s actions.” The integrity of the judicial process was at stake, given Juror 143’s actions, and Sessions was correct in requiring that Fell’s trial be a fair one.
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