MONTPELIER -- Late on a September night half a century ago, Lionel Goyet, a 21-year-old soldier absent without leave for the fifth time, was hitchhiking south on US Route 5 in Barton.
In uniform, he was headed back to Fort Devens, Mass., to turn himself in. He had just left his wife's home, where he had learned ''she was going out on me."
The court record offers no explanation about why he was carrying a .22-caliber pistol he had borrowed from a friend or why he decided to rob Archie Webber, a 26-year-old farmhand known to his family as Pete, who was headed home to East Haven. Goyet shot Webber twice in the head and took $2.
In September 1955, the crime was big news. ''You don't handle a first-degree murder case every day, especially in Vermont," said Clement Potvin of Waterford, a retired State Police lieutenant. In 1955, Potvin was a trooper first class who arrested Goyet the next day.
Almost two years later, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld Goyet's first-degree murder conviction and his death sentence. It was the last one imposed by a Vermont court.
Vermont is a different place now from what it was in 1957. The state was just starting the shift that would turn it from one of the most conservative states in the country to what some consider the most liberal.
Now, though, decades after the state deliberately abandoned the death penalty, attorneys are preparing for a death penalty trial in federal court in Burlington.
Jury selection is set to begin Tuesday in the case of Donald Fell, a 24-year-old former Rutland man accused of killing a Clarendon woman abducted in a supermarket parking lot in November 2000.
In the winter of 1957, while the state Supreme Court was considering Goyet's case, Representative Cornelius Granai of Barre introduced a bill to give courts more discretion in imposing death sentences. The bill passed three weeks after Goyet was sentenced to die.
Six months after the court sentenced Goyet to death, his sentence was commuted. In 1969, Governor Deane Davis signed a conditional pardon for Goyet and he was released from prison. Goyet died of heart failure in 1980 in Littleton, N.H.
Officials at the state archives could find nothing in the historical record to indicate if Granai's bill prompted Governor Joe Johnson to commute Goyet's sentence in November 1957 or, 12 years later, what prompted Davis to sign the pardon for Goyet that set him free.
Granai's son Ed, a former state legislator from Burlington, said his father spent his years in the Legislature working to eliminate the death penalty. The elder Granai was Washington County state's attorney from 1928 to 1934, and he witnessed the execution of a man he convicted.
''When he saw this guy executed, it really shook him up," Ed Granai said. ''To my knowledge, that was when he thought seriously about outlawing the death penalty."
It was not until 1965 that the Legislature, in effect, outlawed capital punishment, although technically the death penalty remained a part of state law until 1987. The state's death penalty law was invalidated in 1972 by the US Supreme Court decision that commuted all death sentences in the country.
Phil Hoff, who served as governor from 1963 to 1969, said that even though the death penalty was on the books through his governorship in limited circumstances, he would not have allowed an execution to take place.
Goyet was the last person sentenced to death in a Vermont courtroom, but his was not the last capital trial. In 1962, Charlotte Mahoney, a Franklin County housewife, went on trial for the first-degree murder of her husband, the death penalty hanging over the proceedings. She was convicted of second-degree murder, which did not carry the possibility of death.
While Vermont has moved away from the death penalty, the state has also moved toward taking into consideration the feelings of victims and their families.
''In general, we've become much savvier and sensitive to victims' needs," said Amy Holloway, the director of victim services for the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Now, when a defendant is sentenced, the victims or their families are offered the option of being notified whenever an inmate has a change in status. And if asked, an advocate will accompany victims or their family to parole hearings.
Even after 50 years, the pain caused by Pete Webber's murder is still acute.
His sister, Charlene Calcagni-Boisvert, was a 12-year-old eighth-grader in 1955 when she told her brother she hated him for the big-brother torment he inflicted on her. It was the last thing she ever said to him.
''I hung onto that for many years because I could never say I'm sorry," said Calcagni-Boisvert, now of Barre.
She said she can never go by the pull-off on Route 5 where Webber was killed without thinking of him.
''The reason Pete picked him up was because he was in uniform. Pete had just gotten out of the service," she said.
At the time, the Webbers wanted Goyet to be executed.
''The justice of the day really wasn't served," Calcagni-Boisvert said. ''Whatever the reason he didn't get the death penalty, I'll never know."
Being the sister of a murder victim has colored her feeling about the death penalty.
''As a relative of a victim, I feel there is just cause for the death penalty," she said. ''If I hadn't gone through that, I wouldn't be for it."