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Aug. 15, 2022

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Vancouver teen’s murderer beats three strikes — again

Roy Russell beat a life sentence and then went on to kill Chelsea Harrison, 14, in 2005. Now, his second three-strikes sentence is being overturned because of a change in state law

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
5 Photos
Roy Russell, at left, who was convicted of murdering Chelsea Harrison in 2006, is getting a second three strikes life sentence overturned because of a change in state law.  “When a judge sits on the bench and says ‘life in prison without the possibility of parole’ that should be a pretty steadfast decision and should never come up again,” said Chelsea’s grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, at right, holding a photo of Chelsea at her Foothill Ranch, Calif., home in 2010. Also pictured are Chelsea’s brother, Chris Harrison, and mother, Stephanie Johnson.
Roy Russell, at left, who was convicted of murdering Chelsea Harrison in 2006, is getting a second three strikes life sentence overturned because of a change in state law. “When a judge sits on the bench and says ‘life in prison without the possibility of parole’ that should be a pretty steadfast decision and should never come up again,” said Chelsea’s grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, at right, holding a photo of Chelsea at her Foothill Ranch, Calif., home in 2010. Also pictured are Chelsea’s brother, Chris Harrison, and mother, Stephanie Johnson. (Photos by The Columbian and The Associated Press) Photo Gallery

A convicted murderer from Vancouver has beaten a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release — for a second time.

Roy Wayne Russell Jr. first walked free in 2001 after winning an appeal following an arson conviction. Just four years later, at age 45, he suffocated 14-year-old Chelsea Harrison after hosting underage drinking and drugs parties at his Vancouver duplex.

Russell now admits he killed Chelsea. But due to a change made by the Washington Legislature last year, he may walk free again in the coming years.

Under the revised three-strikes law, a prior out-of-state robbery conviction no longer counts as his first strike offense; his mandatory life sentence will be vacated, and he will be resentenced. He is likely to be ordered to spend from 21 to 30 years in prison, with credit for about 16½ years already served.

Those closest to the case see it as a “slap in the face,” particularly after Chelsea’s family worked for years with former state Sen. Don Benton to fix the loophole that allowed Russell to walk free the first time.

“When a judge sits on the bench and says ‘Life in prison without the possibility of parole,’ that should be a pretty steadfast decision and should never come up again,” Chelsea’s grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, said in a phone interview last week.

“I don’t care if he’s been a good boy in jail or what he’s done. We are quite upset about it,” she said. “The crime that he committed, murdering my granddaughter, turned our whole family upside down. … Your life is never the same, and you try to move on and not have it on your mind too much, but it’s always there.”

Attorney Jim Senescu, who prosecuted the case and has since gone into private practice, is advocating for Chelsea’s family in concert with the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“Everyone is kind of up in arms over this, and having to relive telling all of these different people about what’s happening has been horribly frustrating,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t blame the parties involved. I blame the state Legislature — to pass a law like this that lets something like this happen.”

Arson, kidnapping, robbery

According to Columbian archives, Russell was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He had been convicted of arson for setting a couch on fire in his former girlfriend’s apartment in Vancouver. Prosecutors said he set the blaze, which resulted in $50,000 worth of damage, after confronting the woman at a local tavern and being ejected by bouncers.

At the time, he already had two serious, violent criminal convictions on his record: a 1979 robbery and 1982 kidnapping, both in Arizona. Prosecutors believed the convictions counted as strike offenses in Washington. (Washington’s three-strikes law imposes a mandatory life sentence for those who are convicted of a third most-serious offense.)

On Jan. 19, 2001, the state Court of Appeals vacated his life sentence, finding the Clark County judge erred in equating Russell’s Class 4 felony conviction for kidnapping in Arizona to the crime of second-degree kidnapping in Washington. The court ruled Russell’s Arizona crime was the equivalent of unlawful imprisonment in Washington, which does not qualify as a strike offense.

He was released from prison June 19, 2001.

On July 1, 2005, Russell, who was working as a vacuum cleaner salesman, moved into a duplex in Vancouver’s Lincoln neighborhood. Chelsea, a freshman at Evergreen High School, was among a group of teenagers who frequented the house. Russell plied them with beer and liquor, let them smoke marijuana and do things without traditional adult supervision.

On Nov. 1, 2005, Chelsea went to Russell’s house after school along with a half-dozen other teens. When the other kids left, she was left alone with him.

Her body was found in his basement shower with the water running. An autopsy determined she had been suffocated.

The prosecution argued that Russell killed Chelsea after she rejected his sexual advances. Witnesses told police that Russell had been flirting, and the two were drinking heavily while playing a card game involving drinking.

Russell told police the teens left his house late that night, and he left Chelsea alone while she used his bathroom. He said he thought she had arranged a ride home, so he went to his place of business to get some toilet paper.

Russell’s DNA was found under one of Chelsea’s fingernails, and his cellphone records showed he was at home long after he claimed he’d left.

A 12-woman jury convicted Russell in January 2006 of second-degree murder, second-degree felony murder and first-degree manslaughter in Chelsea’s death. Once again, he was sentenced under the three-strikes law to life in prison without the possibility of release.

‘Miscarriage of law and justice’

In 2019, the Legislature removed second-degree robbery — a felony which generally involves no weapon or physical injury — from the list of most-serious offenses; last year, it made the change retroactive, triggering resentencings for an estimated 100-plus people who “struck out,” in part, because of a second-degree robbery conviction.

Clark County prosecutors didn’t initially realize the change applied to Russell’s case. Then, in November, Russell filed a motion for relief from sentence, citing the change that applied to his prior robbery conviction.

Prosecutors agreed.

“It is the opinion of this office, as the law is written, it clearly does apply to his case, and we don’t have any kind of discretion to make any kind of reasonable argument that it doesn’t apply to this case and that he needs to remain on his life sentence,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Aaron Bartlett, of the appellate unit, said in an interview last week.

At Russell’s resentencing, Bartlett said the prosecution intends to ask for the maximum possible sentence. That’s just shy of 30 years. Russell will be given credit for the time he’s already served. Superior Court Judge David Gregerson is presiding over the case; a hearing date has not yet been set.

No one expected this outcome when Russell was sentenced in 2006.

Senescu, the former prosecutor, said he operated under the law at the time and charged the case as such.

“Had we known this law was going to come down the pike and that the lawmakers would change, we would have probably taken a different stance and tried it differently. … We firmly believe the intent behind that new statute was to prevent mostly younger offenders who commit a robbery in the second degree and that’s the basis for a third strike. I don’t think that they intended to let murderers go free,” Senescu said.

“I hope that the public hears about this. I really want attention to be drawn to this egregious miscarriage of law and justice,” he added.

The presiding juror in Russell’s murder case said she thinks the life sentence without the possibility of parole is the correct sentence.

“I don’t think the lawmakers understand the repercussion that’s happening with this law,” Barbara Sheldon Hilkey said in a phone interview last week. “This man murdered a 14-year-old. We wanted him to be held accountable for the crimes that we agreed he had committed.

“Life is life. He took a life,” she said. “You go to a parent and say, ‘Hey, this man murdered your daughter, but he gets to roam the streets again and your daughter doesn’t.’ I don’t think that’s fair. I think he needs to be held accountable for life.”

Chelsea Harrison Act

In 2008, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the Chelsea Harrison Act, sponsored by Benton, which plugged the loophole in the three-strikes law that allowed Russell to be freed the first time.

The act amended state law to specify that any felony crime conviction in another state with a finding of sexual motivation counts as a three-strikes crime if the minimum sentence imposed was 10 years or more.

Benton said Monday he was shocked and upset to learn Russell beat the three-strikes law and life sentence for a second time.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when our Legislature is putting our citizens at risk instead of protecting them from career criminals, a very, very sad state,” he said in a phone interview. “If you feel compelled to change a law because it’s not working … at least do it carefully and not retroactively, so you’re not releasing dangerous criminals back into society.

“This is not a place for mistakes and ‘I’m sorrys,’ ” he added.

Russell confesses

Russell now admits to killing Chelsea, despite denying it during his trial and sentencing. But he says he is a changed man and should have the chance to walk free someday.

He wrote in an affidavit filed with his resentencing motion that after re-reading the victim impact statements in the case on a daily basis that he “deserved to feel their pain, misery and to experience those sleepless nights.”

“I know I hurt a lot of people over the years with the crimes I committed. But the taking of Chelsea Harrison’s life is my most heinous crime of all, and it haunts me to this very day,” he wrote. “I destroyed her family and mine in the process. How can I possibly atone for this — it’s not possible. … If I could trade my life to bring Chelsea back I would in a heartbeat. I truly mean this. I feel so much remorse and shame sometimes it’s unbearable.”

In the affidavit, he pondered whether physical abuse he said he suffered at the hands of his father contributed to him growing up “angry, violent and emotionless.” He went on to describe what he said has been a transformation while in prison that’s allowed him to experience emotions, such as kindness, mercy, compassion and empathy.

Russell described graduating from a number of betterment programs and classes over the years, going on to facilitate one until 2019. He’s assisted other incarcerated individuals in creating job application materials and has coached them on job interview skills.

“As difficult as the prison experience can be, I know for an absolute fact that anyone’s prison experience can be transformed from a ‘Palace of Pain’ into a ‘House of Healing,’ it’s just up to each individual to decide how they will use their time in prison, in a negative or positive way. … I am in no way the scum bag I was when I committed this horrible crime. I will never commit any future crimes whatsoever.”

Russell wants to be free again, he said, to build a life for himself and his family.

“I have been questioning myself. Do I really deserve another chance? … I know nothing will ever erase my past, if I was one of Chelsea’s family members I would never want the person who took her life to ever get out of prison,” he wrote. “I do not wish to be remembered by my family or this court for only my past crimes, but rather the positive changes I have made in my life and the person I am today.”

But Chelsea’s family and those who helped bring Russell to justice say they don’t buy it.

Johnson said Russell is a habitual criminal, and she still remembers Superior Court Judge John Wulle telling Russell, “You are the poster boy for the three-strike act.”

“I hope he isn’t put back on the street, and if so, I hope they have sense enough to have him on probation or parole,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe a legislature would even consider the possibility of someone like him being set free again.”

Retired Vancouver police Detective Scott Smith, the lead detective in the murder case, said his first impression of Russell was that “he’s a very gifted con man.”

He said he finds it interesting that Russell is admitting guilt now that he has an opportunity to be released.

“He’s beaten a third strike again — a robbery, a kidnapping, an arson and now a murder,” Smith said in a phone interview last week.

“The question should be: Do the legislators think of the consequences of their actions on the victims? They’re looking at fairness and equity, but we are forgetting our victims,” Smith said. “We have a 14-year-old girl whose life was ended, and a man who may get out in 21 years.

“She didn’t get a chance to make it to 21.”

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