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Russell guilty in teen’s death

Sentence will be life without parole under three-strikes law

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January 24 , 2005 -- Jeremiah Coughlan -- Deputy prosecutor James Senescu makes the case for preponderance of small pieces of testimony and evidence forming a large picture that gives motive and means to convicting Roy Russell in the death of Chelsea Harrison, 14, found in a basement shower of Russell's duplex 4010 Daniels St. November 1, 2005.  Senescu gestures how one piece, Chelsea defending herself by hitting Russell with her right fist, causing bruises to Russell's left torso, and scraping his left hand, which was over her mouth, with her left hand where his DNA was found.
January 24 , 2005 -- Jeremiah Coughlan -- Deputy prosecutor James Senescu makes the case for preponderance of small pieces of testimony and evidence forming a large picture that gives motive and means to convicting Roy Russell in the death of Chelsea Harrison, 14, found in a basement shower of Russell's duplex 4010 Daniels St. November 1, 2005. Senescu gestures how one piece, Chelsea defending herself by hitting Russell with her right fist, causing bruises to Russell's left torso, and scraping his left hand, which was over her mouth, with her left hand where his DNA was found. Thie pictures shows Russell's hands photographed by the Vancouver Police. Photo Gallery

A Clark County jury convicted Roy Wayne Russell on Tuesday of killing 14-year-old Chelsea Harrison in November and leaving her naked body in his basement shower.

The jury deliberated for four hours before finding the vacuum cleaner salesman guilty of second-degree murder, second-degree felony murder and first-degree manslaughter in Harrison’s death.

A loud gasp erupted in the crowded courtroom when Judge John P. Wulle read the verdict at 4:13 p.m. Tuesday. “Oh, my God,” Harrison’s mother, Stephanie Johnson, exclaimed with a sob.

Russell showed no emotion. But as he was led from the courtroom, he softly said to his family members, who were in tears, “This isn’t over.” And in the hall outside the courtroom, he told reporters, “It doesn’t surprise me; this is Clark County. I’m innocent.”

But Stephanie Johnson said she felt justice was served.

“We can rest a little bit better at night,” she said. “My baby’s still gone. They (Russell’s family) get to go visit him, but I’ll never get to see my daughter again.”

Wulle set sentencing for 11 a.m. Feb 3. But Russell, 45, can expect an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole under Washington’s three strikes law because he’d been convicted of two previous felonies.

The circumstances of Harrison’s death and the testimony that followed in the eight-day trial provided an unusual look at heavy and frequent alcohol use by teenagers, some as young as 14 and some who’d been to parties at Russell’s house 40 to 50 times. Harrison, 14, was among a group of teens who frequented the house where he provided them with beer and liquor, let them smoke pot and operate without traditional adult supervision.

The high school freshman and a half-dozen other teens went to Russell’s Lincoln neighborhood home after school Nov. 1. That night, she was left alone with him when the other kids left, and her body was found in his basement shower with the water running. She had been suffocated.

One day of the trial was marked by an altercation between a witness and a member of Harrison’s family. So when the jury returned with its verdict Tuesday, police officers stood along the courtroom walls to prevent a repeat.

In his 72-minute closing argument, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Senescu described Russell as a man who preyed on teens.

“This was a dream house for an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “A free party. A free place to drink. Free booze. Who wouldn’t want to go over to Roy’s house?”

Senescu said the way Russell built his alibis to cover up his crime was “almost brilliant.” But four factors showed his story to be lies.

First, his DNA was found under Harrison’s fingernail. Second, the record of his cell phone calls showed he was still at home long after he claimed he’d left. Third, a neighbor watching late-night TV saw what may have been his car backing out of his driveway after he claimed to have left. And fourth, a convenience store surveillance camera recorded what looked like his car driving by when he said he was somewhere else.

“The evidence is consistent at every step of the way that Mr. Russell is responsible,” Senescu said.

Senescu pointed to testimony showing Russell’s sexual desire for the 14-year-old. He said Harrison apparently faked a phone call to remain at Russell’s house. There was no sign the two had sex consensual or not although a condom could have concealed any evidence. But her backpack was in Russell’s basement bedroom and her clothes were scattered around the floor.

Something went wrong, Senescu said. Perhaps Harrison, who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.21 percent, rejected Russell’s sexual advances, Senescu speculated. He said Russell probably used his hands to smother her. In her final struggle, Senescu said, a fingernail on her left hand probably picked up his DNA while she tried to scratch his hand away from her face. Harrison also could have caused bruises found on his abdomen while simultaneously trying to punch him in a struggle, Senescu suggested.

The DNA and the bruises, Senescu said, were both crucial pieces of evidence.

“Chelsea Harrison did not go easily,” he said. “That was the way she was able to let us know whom she was struggling with.”

In his 37-minute closing argument, defense attorney Jeffrey Barrar conceded that a guy who let teenagers drink and smoke pot in his home was not very likable.

“You don’t have to like him,” Barrar told the jury. “He’s a despicable character.”

But he said prosecutors never proved Russell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Your job is to look at the evidence,” he said, “not avenge Chelsea Harrison’s death.”

He allowed that the DNA under her fingernails belonged to Russell. But he pointed to testimony from DNA experts who said it could have come from casual social contact.

“She was at his house for eight hours,” Barrar said. “I would have been surprised had they not found something. But it doesn’t give you a motive for murder.”

He speculated that a sexual predator was lurking around the neighborhood.

“If I’m a sexual predator I know this is a place where teenagers go and get drunk and I know if I hang around there I can pick one off. Did that happen? I don’t know.”

He said Vancouver police focused on Russell as a suspect from the beginning and never seriously considered anyone else. But he said they never established a coherent motive.

“If you look at the evidence critically, it doesn’t make it. Roy Russell is innocent. He didn’t kill Chelsea Harrison.”

Senescu, trying his first murder case, said he didn’t think any one piece of evidence swayed the jury.

“There wasn’t any one witness or video,” Senescu said after the verdict. “It was everything together that added to the picture.”

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