Monday, June 19, 2006

Part One: Words from Vermont

For the past few days, Rachel Lawler, an NCADP intern, has been up in her home state of Vermont, working to oppose a rare federal death penalty trial that has taken place up there. (Vermont has no state death penalty but in a case of John Ashcroft-induced federalism-in-reverse, the U.S. Justice Department has secured the first death sentence in modern Vermont history.)

Rachel is a pre-law student at Woodbury College in Vermont with aspirations of working as a public defender. She currently serves as Amnesty International USA’s State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator (SDPAC) for Vermont, is a founding member of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty, and sat in on the entire US v. Fell trial during the summer of 2005. She loves hot sauce.

This is part one of Rachel's report:

On Friday, June 16th a man was sentenced to die in Vermont. The defendant and a now-deceased codefendant (who committed suicide while in prison) were charged with two death-eligible crimes: carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death. The victim was a woman named Terry King.

You may be thinking to yourself, “What? A death sentence in Vermont?” But it’s the truth and it was made possible thanks to the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) and in this case specifically, Fmr. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Back in 2001, the prosecutors drafted a plea bargain that would have sentenced the defendant to life without possible release in exchange for a guilty plea. But when that was submitted for Ashcroft’s approval, he decided to ignore the Government’s proffer that the defendant’s terrible childhood was enough to mitigate circumstances away from being a death penalty case. The defendant had a childhood that most of us cannot even begin to imagine living through. He suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from practically everyone in his life, witnessed his parents stab each other during a drunken argument, he was abandoned by both of them by the time he was 13. Everyone in his life gave up on him. And then society did by condemning him to die.

Why did the Attorney General choose to dismiss this evidence? Perhaps it was because the case could have been tried in either New York or Vermont and at the time, New York’s death penalty statute had not yet been declared unconstitutional, whereas Vermont hadn’t had a death sentence handed down in its state since 1954. Perhaps it was because a report had just been released by the Department of Justice that cited disturbing statistics about the federal death row. Pursuing a death sentence in this case enabled him to even out some less-than-favorable statistics. Who knows.

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