The federal judge hearing the death penalty retrial of a Vermont man charged with killing a Rutland supermarket worker more than 16 years ago said he was open to hearing a constitutional challenge of the federal death penalty law.
In an order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford said there was "strong disagreement" in "judicial and scholarly" circles about the legality of the death penalty.
"Preliminarily, and with an open mind about the arguments recently made by both sides, the court is looking at the constitutional challenge to the death penalty," Crawford wrote in the entry order dated Tuesday.
Crawford said that cases from the 1970s identified and tried to correct problems with the death penalty but "40 years later the question of a systemic violation of the Eighth Amendment remains."
Crawford scheduled a hearing for Feb. 26 so defense attorney for Donald Fell and prosecutors can discuss the details of the case and be ready for a hearing on the issues this summer.
Robert Dunham of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center said Crawford's ruling was an important development in the case.
"Judges don't grant evidentiary hearings if they don't have concerns about the issues," Dunham said.
Fell was arrested in 2000 shortly after the abduction and killing of Terry King, a North Clarendon grandmother. At the time, prosecutors decided the case should be heard in federal court. Vermont has no death penalty.
In 2002, the judge then hearing the case declared the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Two years later, an appeals court overturned that ruling, allowing the original trial to go forward.
Fell was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to death for the abduction and killing of King. A judge ordered a new trial because of juror misconduct. A second trial is scheduled for February 2017
Last fall, Fell's attorneys asked the court to rule the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.