Court Says Jury Misconduct Justified Firing

MONTPELIER, Vt. (CN) – The Vermont Supreme Court upheld the firing of a state employee whose gross misconduct as a juror on a capital-murder trial led to the reversal of a guilty verdict.

Environmental biologist John Lepore had worked with the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) for 13 years when he served as a juror in the 2005 federal criminal trial of Donald Fell, charged with the kidnapping and murder of Terri King.

The ruling says Lepore explicitly ignored the court’s instructions during the trial to conduct his own investigation.

Traveled over two hours to Rutland, Lepore visited the crime scene, as well as the home and neighborhood where Fell’s mother lived. After Lepore shared his observations during deliberations with fellow jurors, the jury found Fell guilty of all charges and sentenced him to death.

Fell’s attorneys secured a reversal of those convictions nearly a decade later, however, based on a sworn statement in which Lepore admitted to his actions during the trial.

When prosecutors began planning for Fell’s retrial, a Vermont newspaper outed Lepore in August 2014 as the juror responsible.

Lepore’s workplace soon opened an investigation into him, but he did not learn his job was on the line until he received an April 30, 2015, letter that laid out disciplinary charges.

The ruling says Lepore tried to walk back his admissions – lying “openly” to the court in a post-trial proceeding on Fell’s conviction – but he was terminated in July 2015.

Lepore’s employment status went to the Vermont Supreme Court this year over findings by the labor relations board his firing was an abuse of discretion.

The board had called it unfair that Lepore was blindsided by the disciplinary charges in April 2015 – seven months after the department began its investigation. But the Vermont Supreme Court reversed on Dec. 9, finding that the delay was not prejudicial, and that “the board’s approach runs contrary to sound public policy.”

“It would essentially require an employer to discipline an employee immediately, even based on incomplete information, in order for it to prove that it had serious concerns about an employee’s conduct,” Associate Justice Marilyn Skoglund wrote for the unanimous court.

“This approach would encourage a rush to judgment, with negative repercussions for employees, especially in cases where dismissal results from the conduct.”

The 11-page opinion agrees with the state that it was reasonable to fire Lepore after his “extremely poor judgment and brazen dishonesty” cast doubt on his “fitness as a state employee.”

Lepore was represented by Timothy Belcher and Kelly Everhart with the Vermont State Employees’ Association. Belcher voiced dissatisfaction with the ruling.

“We thought he VLRB decision was correct and well reasoned,” Belcher said in an email, “so we’re disappointed that the Supreme Court disagreed.”

Donald Fell’s retrial is set to begin early next year. Though the defendant tried to take the death penalty off the table this time around, U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford rejected that effort on Dec. 13.

“The current state of the law is that the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for murder committed by adults not disqualified for reasons of intellectual disability who have received a trial which meets the [legal] standards,” Crawford wrote. “Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself.”

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