Judge admits his decision in domestic-abuse case had ‘the most tragic result possible’
Judge Michael Hensley had a tough decision to make.
On one hand, he could approve a warrant request forcing authorities to arrest Anthony Russell, a 51-year-old Madison, Ind., elementary-school teacher with a history of violently attacking his wife.
On the other, Hensley could deny the request and issue a summons, forcing Russell – who had been accused of stalking his estranged wife and violating a no-contact order – to appear in Jefferson County Superior Court days later.
Hensley chose the latter on Oct. 6, arguing that prosecutors had not shown sufficient probable cause for him to approve an arrest warrant.
Within hours, police say, Laura Russell had been stabbed to death by her estranged husband, who then shot and killed himself.
Police discovered Laura Russell when they came to her home to inform her about her husband’s death.
Hensley has been heavily criticized for letting a violent man go free, a decision that had fatal consequences.
More than a week after his ruling, the judge broke his silence.
“The reason I did not issue a warrant in this case is that there was not sufficient probable cause,” he said in a statement published by the Madison Courier. “Without probable cause I do not have the power to issue a warrant.”
“I made what I thought to be the correct legal decision,” he added. “Obviously, I made a decision that had the most tragic result possible.”
Jefferson County Sheriff John Wallace said Laura Russell’s death is being treated like a homicide and the investigation is ongoing. Investigators sent evidence to the Indiana State Police Laboratory for further analysis, he said.
Wallace said the couple had a recent history of violent conflict. Among the most recent incidents was a “domestic violence altercation” in August in which Russell was attacked by her husband.
Anthony Russell was arrested and slapped with several charges, including domestic battery, strangulation and interference with reporting a crime, according to court documents cited by ABC affiliate WHAS.
Laura Russell filed for a no-contact order, which was issued as part of Anthony Russell’s bond release, authorities said.
In spite of the order, said Wallace, the sheriff, her husband continued to make contact with her and several more instances of physical abuse were reported to police.
Laura Russell told police that in the days after the court order was filed, she encountered her husband waiting for her in a restaurant parking lot, on the side of the road after work and at a gas station near her daughter’s school, according to documents cited by WHAS. He also texted her, the documents state.
Wallace told WHAS that Laura Russell “did everything right,” noting that she followed the court’s orders by reporting each incident to police.
“It was a tragic way for things to end,” he said. “I certainly don’t want this to be a deterrent that might keep other victims of domestic abuse from contacting police.”
On Oct. 6, the Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office charged Anthony Russell with felony stalking and filed a motion for a warrant to have him arrested.
Hensley denied that motion.
Soon after, a 44-year-old mother who loved animals, fitness and music was dead.
Messages left with the judge’s office were not immediately returned.
In his statement to the Madison Courier, the judge said he made his choice keenly aware of the dangers that domestic violence situations pose.
He said he had represented domestic violence victims as a lawyer, even when they were unable to compensate him.
“I am well aware of the danger in these situations – yet the fact that an elementary school teacher killed his wife and then himself is still hard for me to believe,” Hensley said in his statement. “Judges make difficult decisions every day. My goal is to make sure I have every piece of evidence the law allows me to consider before making a final decision on a warrant request. When I do not find probable cause on a warrant request, I will now issue an order for a hearing to be held on the same day as the warrant request. I am hopeful the new procedure prevents a similar tragedy in the future.”
In a statement emailed to The Washington Post, Jefferson County Prosecutor Chad Lewis said his office “welcomes any procedure changes the judge is willing to make” to “prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
Lewis noted that probable cause for arrest in Indiana “is more than mere suspicion,” but doesn’t require “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” – a standard he described as “low.”
“Based on the judge’s letter to the Madison Courier, he did not agree with the Prosecutor’s office and made his own judgments and what he thought to be the correct legal decision,” Lewis added. “While we disagree with the court’s decision, we must respect the judicial system, the Court, and its judicial function.”
According to the FBI, about one in 10 murder victims last year were relatives of the person who killed them, including spouses as well as children. Women were more likely than men to be killed this way, the FBI’s crime data show. In a 2009 report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that women were killed by their intimate partners at twice the rate of men.
In an online tribute, Laura Russell is described as someone who “derived great satisfaction from her work” as a psychiatric nurse at Madison State Hospital. Her “greatest accomplishment,” the tribute adds, was being a mother to her daughter, from whom she was “inseparable.”
A video tribute shows pictures of Russell with family and friends and spending time outdoors with her beloved dogs.
“Laura had a beautiful smile, a warm nature, and a big heart,” the tribute adds. “She is loved by many. She will be dearly missed by all who knew her.”
Featured Image: Handout
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Holley