“The innocent people in this community are being victimized,” Baker said.
However, the road to Russell’s conviction for the 2005 murder of 14-year-old Chelsea Harrison 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 parole.
On Jan. 19, 2001, the state 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.
Just four years later, on Nov. 1, 2005, he suffocated Chelsea after hosting an underage drinking and drug party at his Vancouver duplex. 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 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. According to Stonier, neither did lawmakers. She said legal experts provided a list of cases that would be impacted to the Legislature, and Russell’s case was not among them.
Russell filed a motion for relief from his sentence in November 2021, citing the change that applied to his prior robbery conviction. He is scheduled to be resentenced Nov. 18.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Aaron Bartlett said it is “undetermined” if Russell will be granted release at next month’s hearing, but it is unlikely. No matter the outcome of the hearing, Russell wouldn’t be released immediately, as Baker and others have suggested could happen.
Bartlett said his office completed a review of Russell’s offender score and determined a new sentencing range of 216 to 316 months, or 18 to about 26 years. Russell, 62, has served about 17 years.
Even if Russell is sentenced to the low end of the range, he could be in prison for another year. One factor in that would be how much “good time” he receives, which is calculated by the state Department of Corrections. Additionally, DOC has statutory requirements to fulfill before a person’s release, such as notifying victims and coming up with a release plan, which can delay their release.
In a July interview with The Columbian, Benton said, “Citizens need to wake up and stop voting for people, namely Democrats and some Republicans, too, that would release these vicious animals back into our society to prey on children and their families. That’s why we have these laws to protect people.”
Benton, who served as the 17th Legislative District state senator from 1996 to 2017, sponsored the Chelsea Harrison Act, which plugged the loophole in the three-strikes law that allowed Russell to be freed the first time. Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signed the act into law in 2008.
Benton also previously said criminals shouldn’t get retroactive “get out of jail free cards.”
The Russell case isn’t the only example of Democratic lawmakers failing to protect citizens, Republican candidates claim. Baker and Benton have lobbed sharp criticism at the Legislature for passing “anti-police” bills during the last two sessions.
“This was a part of a huge wave of unnecessary benevolence toward criminals apparently that overtook the Legislature. It’s completely unwarranted,” Benton said of the Russell case in July.
The Legislature passed several police accountability and reform bills during the 2021 session that limited use of force, when officers could engage in high-speed pursuits and required them to use less-lethal munitions in certain situations. Public outrage and complaints from law enforcement led lawmakers to modify those bills in 2022, but Benton said the Legislature still fell short.
“If the Legislature ties the hands of prosecutors and law enforcement, it’s time for a new Legislature,” Benton previously said. “We want someone to enforce the law and put criminals in jail when warranted.”
Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop contributed to this report.