|Ryan Gerald Russell
Like many Americans, I used to be in favor of the death penalty. But after 10-plus years of witnessing rampant corruption in our justice system, I've done an about face. Our system, I've come to believe, is so infested with rogue judges, lawyers, and law-enforcement officials, that it has no business taking anyone's life.
That belief became even stronger with the recent case of Ryan Gerald Russell in Shelby County, Alabama, where I live. Russell was sentenced to death in December for the killing of Katherine Helen Gillespie, the 11-year-old cousin for whom he was serving as legal guardian.
The case hits close to home for us because it was investigated by the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, which we have shown is blatantly corrupt. The trial was overseen by Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner, whose multiple unlawful rulings in a civil lawsuit filed by our troublesome neighbor are largely responsible for our legal headaches.
The stench surrounding the Russell case, however, goes well beyond our personal experiences. Based on press coverage of the trial, there appeared to be ample reasonable doubt that Russell committed murder, much less capital murder. And count me as one observer who has serious doubts that Russell is responsible at all for Katherine Gillespie's death.
Even press coverage of the case makes it seem that a railroad job is going on. Consider this paragraph from The Birmingham News' story about the death sentence, written by Malcomb Daniels:
Evidence at Russell's trial showed he shot the girl in the back of the head in a laundry room of his house, stuffed her body head-first into a plastic trash can and placed the trash can in the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade that was parked in the garage.
That certainly is the story that prosecutors presented to the jury. But did the evidence really show that? According to this story that Daniels wrote during the trial, it did not. In fact, the story indicates that a forensics expert presented no evidence that Russell fired the gun at all.
Meanwhile, the Shelby County Reporter wrote that Ed Moran, the forensics expert, could not come to solid conclusions about key evidence:
Moran said the bullet jacket recovered from the body could not be marked back to any of the guns he examined. He said there was not enough microscopic markings on the jacket for him to make a conclusion.
A man was convicted of capital murder, based on that kind of evidence? And he now faces a death sentence?
Katherine Gillespie's body, and the gun prosecutors believe was used to kill her, were found in Russell's home, where she lived with him. But that's about as strong as the prosecution's evidence gets. Based on press reports, we know that at least six other people--a former girlfriend, three teenagers, and at least two sheriff's deputies (called first by the teens, then by the former girlfriend)--were on or near the Russell property that night.
The teens followed Russell to his house after he reportedly collided with their vehicle and drove off. Instead of getting the tag number and address and contacting authorities, the teens reportedly confronted Katherine Gillespie and caused her to become emotional. The teens reportedly tried to confront Russell, but he refused to get out of his vehicle and eventually pulled it into the garage.
The role of the teens in Katherine Gillespie's death remains murky. News reports at the time of the shooting quoted neighbors as saying four teens were at the Russell house that night:
Police were also tight-lipped about a hit-and-run accident hours earlier. In that accident, four people followed a person, who they say hit their truck, to the same house where the girl was found dead.
What happened to the fourth person, presumably a teen? Or were neighbors mistaken about the number of people who showed up in an angry mood at the Russell house that night?
A press release about the charges against Russell made no mention of the teens or the hit-and-run accident. At a news conference the next day, Shelby County Sheriff spokesman John Samaniego downplayed the role of the accident:
A hit-and-run accident Monday night near Russell's house may not have been connected to the death. The preliminary theory is the hit-and-run and the death had nothing to do with each other, Samaniego said.
By the time the trial began, however, the accident was a key part of the narrative. And the number of teens had dropped from four to three. Two of the teens--Andrew Stone and Robert "Bo" Montiel--testified at the trial. The third teen was identified as Stone's younger sister.
News reports have said little about motive in the killing. Katherine reportedly was a straight-A student who was very fond of Russell and regarded him as a father figure. Russell apparently was at a stressful point in his life. A home builder, his business had suffered during the Bush recession, and his landlord had started eviction proceedings. A former girlfriend testified that Russell had a serious drinking problem.
But murder is about the intentional taking of a life. And we have seen pretty much no information that indicates Ryan Russell had a reason to intentionally kill Katherine Gillespie. Janet Adwell, a parent of one of Katherine's friends, said Russell appeared to be deeply involved in Katherine's life:
Adwell is baffled because the man charged with Katherine's murder, Ryan Russell, her legal guardian and adopted cousin, is someone Adwell trusted and admired.
"Definitely the type of man you'd let your child be around and not think anything of it," Janet Adwell said.
Russell even chaperoned Jennifer, Katheirne and some of their friends on a recent field trip to Atlanta.
"He was always at school. Anytime I was there, he was there: chaperones, computer labs, science labs you name it--he was always at school," Janet Adwell said.
Is it possible that Ryan Russell, under financial duress and the influence of alcohol, accidentally shot the girl he seemingly cared about so much? The answer appears to be yes, and a psychiatrist testified at a sentencing hearing that Russell told him the shooting was an accident. Those circumstances, of course, do not go to murder--and certainly not capital murder.
Is it possible that someone else on the scene that night had a gun and accidentally shot Katherine? It appears that authorities never seriously considered that possibility, and of course, that scenario would not go to murder either. It might, however, go to a massive wrongful-death lawsuit against the persons or entities responsible.
Are authorities in Shelby County capable of making Ryan Russell a fall guy to help cover up for the negligent or reckless act of someone else? The answer to that, based on our experience, unquestionably is yes.