“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.
“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.
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.”