Juror: Russell Defense Lacked Evidence

KELSO, WA — The presiding juror at Fred Russell’s vehicular homicide trial said Wednesday afternoon that convicting Russell was not a simple black and white decision but in the end a lack of evidence and Russell’s decision not to testify hurt his case.

Nick Stumbo is a husband, a football coach and the senior pastor at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, but for the last three and a half weeks he has been the presiding juror at Russell’s vehicular homicide trial. Stumbo said Wednesday that when the case first went to the jury they held an anonymous poll among the six-man, six-woman panel and found that four considered him guilty, one not guilty and seven were undecided.

“It was very tough because we knew the seriousness of the trial and the situation,” Stumbo said. “It wasn’t just a simple black and white decision there were a lot of gray areas we kind of had to wade through.”

One area that wasn’t gray for the jury was the fact within a matter of days of Russell’s original trial date scheduled for October of 2001 he fled to Ireland. For the jury, it wasn’t even a factor.

“We all looked at that and said he could have ran whether he was guilty or innocent,” he said. “He just ran because he felt the cards were stacked against him.”

During the trial the defense team played audio recordings of threatening messages left on Russell’s home voicemail after the crash which claimed the lives of Brandon Clements, Ryan Sorenson and Stacy Morrow on June 4, 2001. Russell attorney Francisco Duarte alluded to the idea that Russell’s image in the public eye was that of the devil.

“What is a 21-year-old man supposed to do when he becomes public enemy number one overnight when he knows he’s not going to get a fair trial because in Eastern Washington he’s the devil,” Duarte asked the jury during the trial.

The jury deliberated for several hours Monday before adjourning for the evening and then resuming Tuesday morning. Another anonymous poll indicated that five jurors thought he was guilty, two thought he wasn’t guilty and five remained undecided.

Jurors were frustrated in their deliberations by two key witnesses to the crash. RJ Hart, one of the drivers who witnessed the crash, took the stand and offered what Stumbo called convoluted and he made it difficult for the jurors to figure out just what he had seen.

“Hart’s testimony [was] poor at best,” Stumbo said. “There was even disagreement just was he lying? Did he just have a bad memory was he just a poor witness?”

On June 4, 2001 Hart had been on his way to work in Moscow when he said Russell came up behind his vehicle at a high rate of speed and flashed his lights at him. On the witness stand Hart said he pulled off to the side of the road to get out of Russell’s way. Defense attorneys claimed that Hart didn’t pull all the way off the road which forced Russell into oncoming traffic and ultimately into the path of Brandon Clements’ Cadillac.

On the other hand, the jurors were frustrated by the lack of testimony from the other key witness to the crash, Fred Russell.

“If Russell had a great memory of what happened and was willing to state it, I think he could have helped his case,” Stumbo said. “On the other hand I could see how he could have also hurt his own case so it didn’t surprise me he didn’t testify.”

The case for the jury came down to defense attorneys trying to plant the idea that Hart had been the catalyst for the crash, pulling onto the road and forcing Russell to swerve around him and into oncoming traffic.

“We concluded had that been the case, Russell would have told people,” Stumbo countered the defense position. “After the accident, he talked to six or seven people, all of whom testified during the trial, and not to any of them did he say ‘This person pulled right in front of me and I swerved to avoid them’, to every single witness after the accident he said ‘I looked up, saw a car coming at me in my lane and swerved to avoid it. Russell never once mentions trying to avoid a car that was going in the same direction as him and yet that’s what the defense is trying to tell us happened.”

In the end, after 10 hours of deliberations the jury, despite their differences of opinion and honest attempts to find reasonable doubt, looked at all the facts, looked at the testimony and the law and then returned guilty verdicts against Russell on three counts of vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault.

“We couldn’t believe their story because there wasn’t enough evidence,” he said. We just determined Russell was the proximate cause of the accident, that Hart’s actions from our point of view were not significant enough to remove blame from Russell even if he had pulled back out, we didn’t think there was proof of that so that’s where we finally came to consensus.”

Russell will be returning to Whitman County for his sentencing which will happen in December. Prosecutors have already said they will seek the maximum sentence while Russell’s defense attorneys have already announced their intent to appeal his conviction.

Less than an hour after the verdict was read in fact Russell attorney Diego Vargas said they will ask for a new trial after identifying several appealable issues dating back to the night of the crash to decisions Judge David Frazier made during the trial.

One of the big ones is the judge’s decision to allow Russell’s blood evidence to be admitted at trial after the samples were destroyed by the state crime lab before Russell could have them indepently tested.

When it’s filed Russell’s appeal will be heard by appelate judges in Spokane. A Seattle lawyer who is an expert in the field of appeals said it will not be easy for Russell to get the jury’s guilty verdict overturned adding that the presumptions on appeal are in favor of the detetermination of the trial court.