“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.
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.
“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 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.”