In handing down the stipulated sentence, Superior Court Judge David Gregerson spoke of the conflict created between the Legislature, criminal justice system and public in Russell’s case.
He called Russell’s resentencing “an unavoidable legal consequence” of Senate Bill 5164, which allows for the resentencing of people sentenced as persistent offenders due to a second-degree robbery conviction, which can no longer be counted as a “strike” offense.
“Intended or unintended makes little difference to the bitter taste in the mouths of Chelsea Harrison’s family and many in this community and state who may rightfully feel let down by our institutions,” he said.
“If today’s result puts the Legislature and the court in an uncomfortable light, then let us not fear or hide from that light; let us welcome the sunlight as the best disinfectant,” Gregerson continued.
‘A third chance’
Attorney Jim Senescu, who prosecuted Russell’s case and has since gone into private practice, spoke on behalf of Chelsea’s family during Friday’s hearing.
He told the court Russell groomed the teenager with alcohol and drugs at a party he hosted; lured her to his basement; assaulted and suffocated her; and then left her naked, lifeless body upside down in his bathroom, before flooding his duplex and fleeing.
The prosecution charged the case based on the law at that time, Senescu said, with the expectation from Chelsea’s family, the community and prosecutors that if Russell was convicted, he’d serve a life sentence.
Senescu said he could never forget the hell Chelsea’s family went through, calling it the worst case he’d prosecuted.
But even worse, he said, was getting a call from Chelsea’s family asking if Russell was going to be released.
“(Chelsea’s) family doesn’t get a second chance, but insanely, he does, a third chance,” Senescu said.
“What has Chelsea been able to do the last 17 years? Nothing. She didn’t even make it to her 15th birthday,” he added.
Chelsea’s grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, speaking via phone, asked Russell what he was thinking when “my granddaughter was dying by your hand?” prompting the defense to object.
Johnson said she’s appalled lawmakers would allow something like this to happen.
She begged the judge to look at everything her family has gone through over the years, in reaching his sentencing decision.
“This put such a hole in our family. You can’t even describe it. … It never goes away,” she said.
Earlier in the hearing, Senescu argued Russell only recently admitted to his crime after facing the possibility of release. Russell said that wasn’t true. He recalled telling his family during a 2013 prison visit. He said they didn’t ask why and never visited again.
“I admit to what I’ve done. It was a bad thing that happened,” Russell said Friday. “I’m really sorry to the family. I don’t know how things got so out of hand, but they did.”
The road to Russell’s conviction for Chelsea’s murder and his subsequent sentence has had many twists and turns.
In 1998, Russell was convicted of arson after setting a couch in his former girlfriend’s Vancouver apartment on fire. Because he already had two previous serious, violent criminal convictions on his record — a 1979 robbery and 1982 kidnapping, both in Arizona — Russell was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
On Jan. 19, 2001, the Washington Court of Appeals vacated Russell’s 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.
Four years later, on Nov. 1, 2005, he killed Chelsea.
A 12-woman jury convicted Russell in January 2006 of second-degree murder, second-degree felony murder and first-degree manslaughter in the teen’s death.
Russell was again sentenced under the state’s three-strikes law to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Then, in 2019, the Washington Legislature removed second-degree robbery — a felony that generally involves no weapon or physical injury — from the list of most-serious offenses; last year, it made the change retroactive, triggering resentencings for more than 100 people who “struck out,” in part, because of a second-degree robbery conviction.
Russell filed a motion for relief from his sentence in November 2021, citing the change that applied to his prior robbery conviction.
His resentencing garnered attention across the state, particularly from current and former lawmakers.
Leading up to the general election and resentencing, Republican candidates in Clark County worked hard to deliver the message that Democrats are soft on crime; they claimed Russell would be eligible for immediate release.
State Rep. Monica Stonier previously told The Columbian that legal experts provided a list of cases that would be impacted by Senate Bill 5164 to the Legislature, and Russell’s case was not among them.
Senescu said he’s already met with state Sens. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to propose some bills for the upcoming legislative session.
“It’s not clear we can fix this, but at the very least, we can fix it going forward,” he said.
In a statement issued late Friday afternoon, Wilson said the change in state law that allowed Russell to beat his life sentence in Chelsea’s murder needs to be undone next year.
“It’s no wonder people have lost trust in government and are so concerned about public safety,” Wilson said.
“A reboot is in order when the Legislature convenes in January,” she added.
Wilson, who is a former member of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said she remembers Chelsea’s murder well.
She noted how it led to the passage of the Chelsea Harrison Act in 2008. That legislation, sponsored by former state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, 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 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.
“We need laws that are fair to victims, and this law needs to be fixed,” Wilson said.