District Court orders new trial for Donald Fell (U.S. v. Fell, D. Vt.) - July 24, 2014
Posted on: 8/18/2014 02:58:48 PM by Kouros

On July 24, 2014, a district court in the District of Vermont ordered a new trial for Donald Fell based on juror misconduct uncovered in capital 2255 proceedings in United States v. Fell.  The opinion can be read here.  This was the first guilt phase reversal in a capital 2255 in many years. 

The court vacated Fell’s conviction and sentence after his post-conviction investigation of juror misconduct and related evidentiary hearings revealed that a juror engaged in a mid-trial investigation of the crime scenes. A sworn declaration signed by the juror and submitted by defense counsel detailed both the juror’s crime-scene visits as well information not in evidence he shared with other jurors about what was observed during those visits.  At a subsequent hearing, the court heard testimony from various witnesses, including the juror himself and acquaintances who had knowledge of the crime scene visits.

Finding that the juror’s crime-scene visits exposed the jury panel to extra-record information, the court presumed prejudice pursuant to Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954). (Slip op., 61) It concluded that the prosecution could not rebut the presumption in light of testimony from other witnesses corroborating information contained in the juror’s sworn affidavit about the visits. The court found that the juror’s testimony at the hearing denying that he had visited the crime-scene lacked credibility. (Slip op., 65) The court went on to hold that even if the presumption of prejudice was not applied, Fell’s evidence showed that the juror’s visits were not harmless because he obtained extra-record information, including information about lighting in the parking lot where the victim was kidnapped and about the neighborhood and home where Fell grew up, that provided insight into the prosecution’s alleged aggravating factors regarding intent and premeditation and also countered Fell’s arguments relating to mitigation at sentencing. (Slip op., 66-73) The court concluded that the juror’s investigation violated Fell’s right to a fundamentally fair trial.

In addition, the court found pursuant to McDonough Power Equipment, Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548 (1984), that the same juror’s intentional efforts to seek out extra-record information in the middle of trial proceedings, his defiance of the court’s instructions, and his repeated false statements to the court, also violated Fell’s constitutional right to an unbiased jury. (Slip op., 75) Highlighting the heightened need for scrutiny of juror bias in capital cases, citing Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305 (1976), the court held that the juror’s “brazen disobedience, dishonesty, and unwillingness to decide the case based upon the evidence presented at trial demonstrate a partiality that would have resulted in his eviction from the panel during trial, and now invalidates Fell’s conviction.” (Slip op. at 75, 80)