Vancouver teen’s murderer escapes life in prison twice

Roy Russell was serving a life sentence for choking a 14-year-old girl to death in his Vancouver home in 2005.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — A Vancouver man who choked a teenage girl to death in 2005 escapes a second life sentence under a Washington state law change.

Roy Russell should spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of 14-year-old Chelsea Harrison at his Vancouver home 17 years ago. Russell, then 45, was a vacuum cleaner salesman known for throwing underage drinking parties.

In November 2005, Chelsea was at Russell’s apartment with a group of other teenagers. Later that night he attempted to rape her. She fought back and Russell killed her, officials said.

“She was raped, beaten and strangled to death, and her naked body was thrown upside down in the shower,” said Jim Senescu, the former prosecutor who charged Russell’s Clark County case.

Russell was convicted of second-degree murder – a charge that carries a sentence of 21 to 30 years in prison. Instead, a judge sentences him to life in prison under the state’s three-strikes law, which generally prescribes a life sentence after three violent crime convictions.

Then, in 2019, lawmakers removed second-degree robbery as one of the crimes that constitutes a strike for future offenders. In the spring of 2021, lawmakers passed new legislation that made the change retroactive and allowed up to 114 inmates to be retried — including Russell, who was convicted of second-degree robbery before the murder.

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Depending on his new sentence, he could be released from prison in just a few years.

And this isn’t the first time Russell’s life sentence has been overturned.

Russell was convicted of multiple crimes beginning in the 1980s, including armed robbery, kidnapping, theft, and arson.

In 1998, a judge sentenced Russell to his first life sentence, also under Washington’s three-strike law. He appealed the verdict, and a judge ruled in 2001 that his conviction for a kidnapping that took place in Arizona did not qualify as a strike under state law.

His life sentence was overturned and he was released from prison just before meeting Chelsea Harrison.

After her murder, the state passed legislation called the Chelsea Harrison Act to fill the loophole that allowed Russell to avoid his first life sentence and expanded Washington statute to include felony convictions in other states.

The aim was to prevent a similar situation from happening again. But after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5164 in 2021, Russell will once again be given a chance to walk free.

“I want to know, did they just miss it, or did they know they were going to release a serial criminal that way?” said Senescu, now a partner at a Vancouver law firm.

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“I’m appalled to be honest,” added Sylvia Johnson, Chelsea’s grandmother.

Seventeen years after the murder, Johnson still finds it difficult to talk about her granddaughter.

“Happy as a clam, loved everyone, loved horses,” she said. “You can’t help but cry. She was such a beautiful girl and had a heart of gold.”

Senescu said he would have pursued the case differently had he known the law would change years after the trial.

“Now we’re back at it – he’s only had 2 strikes. It’s an unfortunate thing the legislature did. I don’t think they thought it through,” he said.

After his conviction, Russell, now 61, denied killing Chelsea for years – until he found out about his new chance at freedom.

In a recently filed court filing, he admitted to the murder and said Chelsea’s death still “haunts” him. He said he was a changed man – no longer a “bastard criminal”.

But Chelsea’s grandmother firmly believes he deserves to remain locked up.

“She’s dead and we have someone who shouldn’t be released from prison because he’s not a good citizen. And now he’s found another little loophole,” Johnson said.

Archival video of Russell’s 2006 sentencing hearing:

As part of his resentencing, Russell will be served approximately 16.5 years. That means he could be released in four to 14 years – or sooner if he’s recognized for good behavior in prison.

The Clark County Attorney’s Office said they will pursue the maximum sentence, but ultimately that is up to the judge. For Chelsea’s family, the thought of their killer getting another chance at freedom is unimaginable.

“The hardest sentence is not enough for me,” said Johnson.

Russell’s resentencing hearing is scheduled for October 14.

KGW reached out to seven of the Democratic Senators who sponsored SB 5164 in 2021: Jeannie Darneille, Mona Das, Patty Kuderer, Bob Hasegawa, Marko Liias, Rebecca Saldaña, Jesse Salomon, and Claire Wilson.

After several requests for comment, they either did not respond or indicated that they were too busy to be interviewed.

A spokesman for a senator said they were “too busy campaigning ahead of the November election” and “will check back in a few months.” Some recommended KGW speak to former Senator Jeannie Darneille, the bill’s lead sponsor, who now works for the Washington Department of Corrections, but she also declined.

KGW has also reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Washington’s Freedom Project, and the Washington Defender Association to try and get a different perspective on prison reform and the push to eliminate or limit the number of life sentences . Neither of these groups would comment on this story.

Russell’s attorney also declined to comment. Vancouver teen’s murderer escapes life in prison twice

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