Jury calls for death penalty in Russell case

By KATIE HURST & SAMANTHA HURST / Staff Writer & Associate Editor

COLUMBIANA — Nine people remained in Judge Michael Joiner’s courtroom Nov. 22 when a red-eyed juror opened a door, alerting the bailiff that the jury had reached its decision in the sentencing of Ryan Gerald Russell.

“We the jury believe the state of Alabama proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the crime was particularly heinous, atrocious and cruel,” said the foreman. “We the jury recommend the defendant, Ryan Gerald Russell, be sentenced to death.”

The jury, made up of eight men and four women, deliberated for about an hour and a half before reaching their conclusion.

Russell’s head hung low but little emotion showed on his face while jurors wiped away tears as they exited the courtroom. Few members of Russell and Gillespie’s families reacted to the decision, except for one woman who gave a thumbs-up to another family member sitting two rows ahead of her.

District Attorney Bill Bostick thanked the jurors for their efforts.

“We’re extremely satisfied with the sentence,” Bostick said. “We are very appreciative to the jurors because they spent a lot of time on this and, you could tell, struggled to reach the right decision and they did.”

Russell, 37, was convicted on Nov. 19 of killing his 11-year-old cousin Katherine Helen Gillespie back in June 2008.

Gillespie’s body was found June 16, 2008 stuffed head first into a trashcan stored in the backseat of Russell’s SUV in the garage of his rental house in Inverness.

An autopsy showed she died of a .40-caliber contact gunshot wound to the head.

After the discovery of her body, Russell was found laying in the fetal position on the floor of his shower surrounded by pills. He was breathing but was unresponsive.

During the course of the six-day trial, the state presented a case to show Russell intentionally shot Gillespie and then destroyed or hid evidence in an attempt to get away with the crime.

Judge Michael Joiner denied the defense attorneys’ multiple requests to have the possibility of an aggravated circumstance eliminated.

Striking the aggravated circumstance would have prevented jurors from suggesting the death penalty.

During closing arguments, Bostick implored jurors to see the crime as what he considered it: a heinous, atrocious and cruel crime.

“Russell trapped her, cornered her, put that gun behind her head and pulled that trigger,” Bostick said. “Katherine Gillespie was alone — she had no one to cry out to.”

Bostick painted a picture of a scared Gillespie running through the home she shared with Russell with nowhere and no one to turn.

“What do little girls do when they’re hurt?” Bostick asked. “What do little girls do when they are scared? They cry out for their mommy or their daddy, but Katherine Gillespie couldn’t do that.”

A book bag was found in the trash can with Gillespie’s body, which contained black gloves, a latex glove and two bullet shell casings in a plastic zip-top bag.

Bostick argued Russell packed this bag in an attempt to recreate the crime scene somewhere else.

Russell’s court-appointed attorneys Mick Johnson and Rick Vickers said they did not dispute that Russell shot Gillespie, but that he did so intentionally.

“Sometimes the gravity of the wrong does not necessarily mean a crime was committed,” Johnson said in his closing argument. “It’s a difficult thing in terms of the ultimate result, the loss of a life. The wrong of the conduct does not determine what was on someone’s mind.”

Johnson argued death was not an accurate punishment for the crime.

“Death is permanent,” said Johnson. “I want each of you to think about life without parole. They take you out of the state of Alabama penitentiary in a pine box.”

Joiner reminded the jury that an aggravated circumstance must be determined in order for them to hand down a death sentence. An aggravated circumstance involves a crime more cruel than typical capital offenses.

Bostick encouraged jurors to see the crime as just such an offense.

“We need you to come back and say, ‘You, sir, deserve the maximum punishment we can recommend,’” Bostick said. “’You, sir, deserve the death penalty.’”

Several of Russell’s family members were present for his conviction Nov. 19.

Russell’s cousin Tommy Russell said he was satisfied with the verdict.

“I think he got what he deserved,” he said. “It’s just gruesome.”

Tommy Russell said he was unsure how to feel since he was related to both Russell and Gillespie.

He said the two of them had been attending family gatherings together for the past few years before Gillespie’s death.

“She was a real nice girl,” he said. “It’s so weird because Ryan was always the good one.”

Tommy Russell said he never imagined Russell would commit a crime like this.

He said Russell has not spoken to the family since the crime, except to tell his stepfather it was an accident.

Judge Joiner must now set up a sentencing hearing.

Defense attorneys also requested that separate appellate counsel be appointed for Russell. In the state of Alabama the death sentence requires an automatic appeals process.

This is the first death-penalty case considered in Shelby County in a decade.