Monday, April 6, 2015

Is Ryan Gerald Russell, like the now free Anthony Ray Hinton, wrongfully sitting on Alabama's death row?

Ryan Gerald Russell
Anthony Ray Hinton was freed last Friday after spending almost 30 years on Alabama's death row for two murders that new forensic evidence indicates he did not commit. We strongly suspect Hinton was not the only inmate wrongfully serving time on Alabama's death row. And we aren't just guessing about that; we have a specific case in mind.

It's the case of Ryan Gerald Russell, an Inverness man who was convicted in the 2008 shooting death of Katherine Helen Gillespie, his 11-year-old cousin. A Shelby County jury deliberated 35 minutes before convicting Russell and recommended a death sentence. Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner, now on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, sentenced Russell to death in December 2010. Russell is housed on death row at Holman Prison.

But was this a case of murder? And, as was the case with Anthony Ray Hinton, is there any evidence tying Russell to the shooting? Based on press reports at the time, the answer to the first question is "maybe not." The answer to the second question is "no."

Are there similarities between the Hinton case and the Russell case? Well, here is how described the process that set Hinton free:

After nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row, Hinton this morning walked out of prison a free man and into the arms of his sisters and friends.

He was freed when prosecutors dismissed the charges for his re-trial in the 1985 deaths of two fast-food managers after new testing on Hinton's gun couldn't prove the crime scene bullets were fired from the weapon.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, served as Hinton's attorney and pushed for the evidence that finally freed his client:

EJI has been asking for more than a decade for prosecutors and the Alabama Attorney General's Office to have the gun re-tested because Hinton's original attorney did not hire a qualified gun expert.

"It should have happened many many years ago. . . . His case, in my judgment, is a case study in what's wrong with our system. He was convicted because he is poor. We have a system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent," Stevenson said.

There is no evidence that Russell's court-appointed trial lawyers hired a gun expert, qualified or not. In fact, Russell's lawyers, Mickey Johnson and Rick Vickers of Pelham, put on no defense at all. We can find no documents on Google Scholar that indicate Russell's conviction was appealed. News reports at the time raised questions about whether the prosecution even had the right murder weapon--and the reports offered no forensic evidence that showed Russell fired the gun.

What led to Katherine Gillespie's death? Here is how we summarized it in a November 2010 post:

The death of Katherine Helen Gillespie is a sad and tragic story. She was born through artificial insemination to a mother who died when she was 7 years old. She did not have a father, so she lived with her maternal grandmother until the summer of 2007. At that point, the grandmother developed signs of dementia, and Gillespie came to live in Inverness with the 37-year-old Russell, a distant cousin who was single and reportedly planned to adopt her.

Katherine Gillespie had been at summer camp on June 16, 2008, and it appeared Russell was going to be late picking her up. A camp counselor later testified that Gillespie was concerned as it got closer to 6 that evening, and Russell had not picked her up, but she was happy and smiled when he made it on time.

Three teenagers reported later that evening being rear-ended by an SUV. When they followed the SUV, it went to Russell's residence. Two of the teens, Andrew Stone and Robert "Bo" Montiel, later testified that a young girl, presumably Gillespie, got out of the SUV and asked them in a tearful voice not to call the police about the collision. They said Russell stayed in the vehicle and eventually backed it into the garage.

One of Russell's ex girlfriends went to the house after relatives told her they had not been able to reach him for several days. She discovered Katherine's body inside the SUV.

Was there reasonable doubt in the Russell case? Evidence showed that Russell had financial problems and a serious drinking problem, but reasonable doubt about murder--and whether he committed it--was everywhere. Consider just a few issues raised at trial:

Katherine Helen Gillespie
* Don Gould, a retired evidence technician, admitted under cross examination that his team left behind four guns at the scene, including the one they eventually considered to be the murder weapon. That gun, a .40-caliber Glock, was found months after evidence recovery, hidden under a couch when a family member of Russell's removed his belongings from the house.

* Ed Moran, a forensics expert, could not connect the bullet from the body to any gun that he examined. From a January 2011 post and an article in the Shelby County Reporter:

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.

* Katherine's body was found in Russell's house, where she lived, and he was her legal guardian. The supposed murder weapon was found there--one of 37 guns recovered at the scene. But that's pretty much where the evidence against Russell ends. We see no sign that he intended to kill Katherine, nothing tying him to the murder weapon. Does this evidence even rise to the level of "flimsy"? But a man sits on death row because of it? Here is how we summarized it:

Here is perhaps the most stunning element of this case: Based on press reports, from both The Birmingham News and the Shelby County Reporter, no evidence was presented that tied Russell to the actual act of shooting Gillespie. Articles about the testimony of a forensics expert made no mention of fingerprints, powder residue, or any other evidence that proved Russell fired the weapon. Yes, the gun was found in Russell's house. But proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he fired the gun? If any was presented at trial, it was not reported in the press.

Russell and Gillespie hardly were alone on the property that night, as we reported:

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. . . . 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.

It took the Alabama "justice system" 30 years to get the Anthony Hinton case right. The Ryan Russell case emits many of the same foul odors. How long will it take for someone to take a second look? Has there even been a legitimate first look yet?


Anonymous said...

What a sad story that such a darling girl had to die in a chaotic situation. God bless her soul.

Anonymous said...

A jury takes 35 minutes to decide a capital murder case? That means almost no one raised any questions about the facts or law presented to them. Very strange.

Anonymous said...

Shelby Co is most conservative county in Alabama, and its judges must look "tough on crime." No way they let a guy like Russell walk, no matter what the facts show.

Dibble said...

If they didn't put on a defense, sounds like Russell's court-appointed lawyers didn't put a whole lot of effort into things.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading about this case when it happened and being curious about the role of the teenagers. I'm still curious about what they did or did not do.

Anonymous said...

The defense's opening argument consisted of them admitting everything in the indictment except that it was an intentional act. That is to say that Russell killed Katherine, but he didn't mean to. An expert witness showed evidence that convinced the jury it was intentional. The fact of which gun was used is irrelevant. If it was accidental, Russell should have testified to explain that. Given that information, any jury would convict him.

legalschnauzer said...

Your comment, @5:30, raises several issues in my mind:

(1) I've scoured reports in Bham News and Shelby Co. Reporter and see no references to the defense admitting everything in the indictment. Why wasn't that reported? Or did I miss something?

(2) This raises questions about effectiveness of counsel. Did Russell's lawyers conduct even the slightest investigation of their own? If they had, they should have learned that the prosecution could not meet its burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

(3) You seem to be saying that the defense made the prosecution's case for them. If so, that again goes to effectiveness of counsel.

(4) If Russell was going to admit to almost everything, why didn't his lawyers push for a plea bargain that would have kept him off death row? Again, effectiveness of counsel. It makes no sense to more or less admit to the act, but still go to trial and wind up on death row.

(5) What evidence did an expert show to prove the act was intentional? The experts quoted in the press could not even find all the guns at the scene.

(6) You say, "The fact of which gun was used is irrelevant," but that's off target. According to press reports, the forensic expert could not match the bullet jacket to any gun at the house. That points to a gun being used from outside the house. If Russell's lawyers did not drive that point home in closing arguments . . . well, what kind of counsel did he have?

(7) My memory is that Russell was found in a drunken, blacked-out state. Was he in any condition to accurately admit to anything?

You might be making a good-hearted attempt to shine light on what happened. But your comment, in my view, has a lot of holes in it.

Anonymous said...

I can not explain why it was not reported, but, if you obtained the a transcript from the trial, you would see that I am correct. The expert, I spoke of, testified about blood spatter in the laundry room. A washer and dryer were brought in the courtroom and he testified to the position Katherine was in when she received the fatal shot. Once the defense opened with an admission that Russell caused the death of Katherine, it really didn't matter what gun was used or what he did with it afterwards. Lack of the weapon doesn't mean you can't get a murder conviction. In fact, it isn't always necessary to have a body to get a murder conviction.

There were multiple experts at the trial. One collected the guns, another tested the guns and another examined the blood.

I never said Russell admitted to anything at the scene. I don't know why Russell didn't try to plea it down and, since I haven't talked with him, all I can do is speculate. My best guess is he thought he could beat the case by smooth talking the jury, but during the trial he decided not to testify. His attorney may have been counting on that testimony to show it was an accident.

legalschnauzer said...

Do you care to tell us how you know this information? I assume you were at the trial in some capacity?

Anonymous said...

I did attend a good portion of the trial, it was open to the pubic.

legalschnauzer said...

I attended trial for one day, I think it was for sentencing hearing. Wish I could have been there for whole thing. Very troubling case, on many levels.

Anonymous said...

Have you written to Russell? It couldn't be that hard to get an address. He might be able to provide you with a transcript of the trial and he would definitely be able to provide more information regarding why the trial went in the direction it did.

legalschnauzer said...

No, I have written to him, but I would like to do that. I know at least one other journalist is interested in his case.

e.a.f. said...

it isn't just those sitting on death row, its all those who were not guilty of the crimes, who were executed. It is just amazing how many people in the USA have been convicted for crimes they did not commit. There is no justice system in the U.S.A.

Victoria said...

I'm just now reading this article.. I testified against him in the case. He showed no remorse, no fight, and didn't care. During our testimonies he wouldn't even look at us, he just stared down at the table. There was evidence that she had been sexually abused as well... Which makes me so sad for Katherine. Then she was killed in execution style, he was found in the bathroom tub unresponsive trying to overdose.. He didn't want to fight to stay out of jail, or death row. He just sat there and didn't say a word. Ryan Russell killed Katherine and that is that.

Anonymous said...

I know Ryan, and have known him for almost 20 years. He always liked to drink but took a turn for the worse immediately following the tragic death of his mother.
There is more than what came out about what happened that day. Facts that Ryan doesn't dispute. People that knew Ryan and were there for the discovery, not only an ex girlfriend.
Ryan doesn't dispute that he committed this heinous crime. Shoddy police work? Yes. Is he guilty? Yes. And as mentioned above, there was a lot of evidence pointing to sexual abuse.
When I found out about this, I was completely shocked. Ryan was always the life of the party, always smiling. But the person who told me about it was there, and from what he saw and heard (from Ryan), there is no doubt he is guilty.

Anonymous said...

As being a family member related to those involved in this case I can tell you without a doubt Ryan Russell is guilty. I was also present for the entire trial. A guilty man is sitting on death row where he needs to be. Evidence pertinent to the case was not released to the public but was given in court. He shot Katherine execution style between a wall and the washer/dryer using a baseball cap and one of Katherine's training bras as a silencer. Then he proceeded to put Katherine's body in a trash can into his SUV with probable plans to go dump her body somewhere. He also sexually abused Katherine. Whether or not you have all the information in your research, he was convicted for a crime he did commit.