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Vancouver teen's killer may walk free again after change to Washington's three-strikes law

Roy Russell was serving life in prison for strangling a 14-year-old girl to death at his Vancouver apartment in 2005.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — A Vancouver man who strangled a teenage girl to death in 2005 will be getting another chance at freedom because of a change to Washington state law.

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

In November 2005, Chelsea was at Russell's apartment with a group of other teenagers. Later that night, he tried 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 dumped upside down in the shower," said Jim Senescu, the former prosecutor who charged Russell's case in Clark County. 

Russell was convicted of second-degree murder — a charge that carries a sentencing range of 21 to 30 years in prison. Instead, a judge sentenced him to life under the state's three-strikes law, which generally mandates a life sentence after three violent felony convictions. 

Then in 2019, lawmakers removed second-degree robbery as one of the felonies that constitutes a strike for future offenders. In the spring of 2021, lawmakers passed a new law that made the change retroactive, allowing as many as 114 inmates to be resentenced — including Russell, who was convicted of second-degree robbery prior to the murder. 

Credit: Contributed
Chelsea Harrison

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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 that Russell has had a life sentence overturned. 

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

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

His life sentence was lifted and he was released from prison not long before he met Chelsea Harrison.

After her murder, the state passed a law called the Chelsea Harrison Act to close the loophole that allowed Russell to escape his first life sentence, expanding Washington law to include felony convictions in other states.

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

"I want to know, did they just miss this or did they know they were going to set a serial criminal free like this?" said Senescu, now a partner at a Vancouver law firm. 

Credit: Contributed
Chelsea Harrison

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"I'm appalled to be honest with you," added Sylvia Johnson, Chelsea's grandmother. 

Seventeen years after the murder, it's still hard for Johnson to talk about her granddaughter.

"Happy as a clam, loved everybody, 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 prosecuted the case differently had he known the law was going to change years after the trial.

"Now we're back to — he only has two strikes. It's a deplorable thing that the lawmakers did. I don't think they thought it through," he said. 

After his conviction, Russell, now 61, spent years denying that he killed Chelsea — until he learned about his new chance at freedom. 

In a recent court filing, he admitted to the murder, saying that Chelsea's death still "haunts him." He said he's a changed man — no longer a "scumbag criminal." 

But Chelsea's grandmother firmly believes that he deserves to stay locked up. 

"She's dead, and we have someone who shouldn't be out of jail because he is anything but a good citizen. And now he's found another little loophole," said Johnson. 

Archive video of Russell's 2006 sentencing hearing: 

As part of his resentencing, Russell will get credit for about 16.5 years served. That means he could be released anywhere from four to 14 years from now — or sooner, if he gets credit for good behavior in prison. 

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office said it will pursue the maximum sentence but it will ultimately be up to the judge. For Chelsea's family, the thought of her killer getting another chance at freedom is inconceivable. 

"The strongest sentence is not enough for me," Johnson said.

Russell's resentencing hearing is scheduled for Oct. 14.

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

Following multiple requests for comment, they either did not respond or stated they were too busy for an interview. 

A spokesperson for one senator said they were "too busy campaigning ahead of the November election" and to "check back in in a few months." Some recommended that KGW speak to former Senator Jeannie Darneille, the bill's prime sponsor, who now works for the Washington Department of Corrections, but she also declined.

KGW also reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Washington's Freedom Project and the Washington Defender Association to try to get another perspective on prison reform and the push to eliminate or limit how many people are given life sentences. None of those groups would comment on this story. 

Russell's attorney has also declined to comment. 

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