Tuesday, Aug 21, 2018
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Keith Burris

COMMENTARY

Russell murder case still unsolved

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Visitors to this space are familiar with the names of Bobbie Russell and Danny Brown.

Brown was convicted of the December, 1981, murder of Ms. Russell. He served 19 years in prison.

Brown was released from prison on the basis of DNA evidence on an article of Ms. Russell’s clothing. The DNA matched another man, Sherman Preston, currently in jail for another murder.

Ms. Russell’s brutal murder remains unsolved.

Brown has never been given an official exoneration or been compensated for his time behind bars, which the wrongly imprisoned are entitled to under Ohio law.

The case has never been closed. Officially, it is still being investigated, though the trail is certainly very cold.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates has never closed the case because she believes there are still unanswered questions. Ms. Russell was also raped. Mrs. Bates wonders if the rape and the murder could have been separate crimes. Or could Brown and Mr. Preston have been at the crime scene together as accomplices? All that seems unlikely. And, in all these years, no evidence of a Brown-Preston connection has ever been established. But Mrs. Bates still believes the case is unresolved.

She also keeps the case officially open because she still defers to, and I think genuinely believes, the testimony of Ms. Russell’s son Jeffrey. That testimony, and, substantially, that testimony alone convicted Brown of murder. Mr. Russell said during the trial that he saw Danny Brown “hurting” his mother: He was sure Danny Brown did it. He killed Bobbie Russell.

But if you read the transcript of the trial and the records of the case, which Mrs. Bates provided me many months ago, you see that Mr. Russell said many things then. He was a little boy, frightened, traumatized, and alone.

I had hoped, given the considerable advances in DNA testing since 1981, that DNA might break the case open once again. I spoke with two DNA experts who said this was possible. Alas, I learned from Mrs. Bates that the evidence is gone. It has been destroyed. How could that be? The case, the prosecutor told me, “seemed to be over.”

Wait a minute. The case is either over or not over. Closed or not closed. Brown is either still a person of interest or he is not.

This goes to the heart of the legal issues still unresolved in this case.

Brown has again filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment. His second attempt. By law a person usually gets only one chance at such a lawsuit. But there are exceptions, such as when a court rules it lacks the authority to determine a conviction a wrongful one. On his first try, the court ruled that Brown could not sue for compensation because he was still, putatively, a suspect — probably a fiction then and certainly, in light of missing evidence, a fiction now. The court disqualified itself. Brown should then, logically and legally, get a second chance at a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit.

There will be a hearing Sept. 1 in Judge Gene Zmuda’s courtroom.

Whatever else can be said about the current state of this case, there’s little justice here.

No one has been convicted. No one has been cleared.

Bobbie Russell deserves a final verdict. Her children deserve closure. Danny Brown deserves to be charged or cleared. There should be a moral statute of limitations on official suspicion.

Perhaps Judge Zmuda will begin to bring some order and healing.

If not, the ball is back in the prosecutor’s hands.

Julia Bates is one of the most honest and committed public servants I have ever met. She is a great prosecutor who has shown much courage and foresightedness over the years, especially with regard to abuse of gun rights and gun violence. I know, from talking to her, that her feelings about this case are sincere and deep.

But leaving this thing hanging is not right. For anyone.

And, if the courts remain paralyzed by the fiction that Danny Brown is still under investigation, she is the only one who can move this case toward some kind of resolution.

I see two options for her, and I hope she will look at them both:

● One would be to create an incentive for Sherman Preston to tell what he knows.

● The other would be to convene a grand jury in this case. Present all available evidence, including current testimony by Jeffrey Russell, and see if a grand jury finds sufficient evidence to indict Brown, Preston, both, or no one.

At least the process would have run its course, the justice system would have done its best for Ms. Russell, and all the victims of this crime, and trial, would have some kind of finality and peace.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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