Life without Parole Rejected
Letter from Victims LED Judge to Bypass Prosecution Advice
By Brandon Ortiz
Herald Leader (Kentucky)
October 22, 2005
After receiving a letter from four victims of a pedophile priest, a Fayette County judge yesterday showed mercy on Jason Anthony Russell, who fatally beat the priest in the head with a pickax.
Fayette Circuit Judge Gary Payne sentenced Jason Anthony Russell, 28, to 30 years in prison for murdering the Rev. Joseph Pilger, 78. Russell would be eligible for parole in 25 years.
The surprise ruling befuddled prosecutors, who had recommended life without parole in a plea deal with Russell, who on Sept. 29 also confessed to burglary and tampering with evidence.
In a short letter, Michael Long, now of Austin, Texas, wrote that Russell had "done a society a favor" by killing a "pedophile monster that preyed upon innocent little boys while in a position of authority and calling him self a man of god."
"The damage a pedophile inflicts on young children is life-changing and lifelong," said Long, who says he wrote the letter on behalf of three relatives who also were molested. "The entire emotional and developmental wiring as a child is changed forever. Pedophiles are nothing but human debris. I have, for years, wished to do what Mr. Russell did."
In 1995, Pilger pleaded guilty to abusing four boys when he was their pastor in the late 1960s at St. Francis Borgia Roman Catholic Church in Sturgis in Western Kentucky. In exchange for the confession, Union County Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Greenwell recommended probation.
Long, who sued Pilger in the early 1990s, wrote that he now regrets not fighting the plea deal.
"If we would have been more adamant about his sentence, we would not be writing you now, and Mr. Russell would not be where he is as well," Long said. "So you see, even now after his death, I still feel guilt."
Russell has told reporters that he decided to kill Pilger, with whom he lived, after the retired priest offered $5,000 to have sex with Russell's then-6-year-old son. Russell, who says he was sexually abused as a child, described that as the last straw. He claims that he had twice walked in on Pilger masturbating with photos of Russell's son and clippings of other children from catalogs.
Pilger was found dead on Dec. 3, 2003.
Last month, Russell avoided the death penalty by agreeing to life without parole. His public defender, Gene Lewter, advised against it, saying a jury would give him a lesser sentence.
Payne agreed yesterday, prompting an objection from Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn.
"You have put us in a situation of knowing our recommendations are meaningless," Red Corn said. "And in a position of making it difficult to make recommendations in the future."
Payne replied, "I understand -- I think I understand what you're saying; I don't know if I agree with you. But that's your call, or the commonwealth's call. I can't tell them what to recommend or not to recommend. ...
"I have seen many cases worse than this, and I agree it was a harsh sentence," Payne continued. "Knowing the facts, knowing everything involved, at least what little I know, I don't think that is an appropriate sentence."
In a brief statement, Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said it has long been his office's policy not to criticize judges. But this ruling made him "disappointed and, to be frank, a little disillusioned."
"This is discouraging to police, prosecutors and most especially the survivors of homicide victims," Larson said. "I understand why crime victims refer to this system as the criminal system, because there is no justice in it."
The recommendation was not taken lightly, Larson said. He said it was based on Russell's criminal record and evidence that he deliberately planned the murder, then stole Pilger's car and wrote checks in his name.
Russell had been released from prison on a complicity to robbery conviction about two months before the slaying.
Larson typically does not accept plea deals in murder cases, preferring to let jurors decide a killer's fate. In this case, jurors might not have been sympathetic toward Pilger, Larson said in September.
Nonetheless, it's speculative to say Russell would not have gotten life, Larson said.
"It never occurred to me that he would be sentenced to 30 years," Larson said.
Payne declined comment yesterday. He also ordered Russell to serve 10 years for burglary and five years for tampering with evidence, to run concurrently.
State law does not require judges to abide by recommendations from juries or, in the case of guilty pleas, prosecutors. They frequently accept them, however.
Russell's attorney, Lewter, said the sentence did not surprise him. The circumstances of the case, and the letter from Long, made it unusual.
He dismissed criticism from prosecutors.
"The Commonwealth is used to judges going along with their recommendations," he said.
In a jailhouse interview, Russell said he became acquainted with Pilger in prison through a former priest who was also a convicted child molester. Russell began writing to Pilger, then moved in with him when he was released from prison in October 2003.
Pilger gave him money and helped him find employment, in exchange for an odd request: that Russell occasionally walk around the house naked.
After Pilger asked to have sex with Russell's son, Russell stormed out of the house and drove to Jacksonville, Fla., where his former girlfriend and son lived, Russell said.
He drove back to Lexington weeks later to murder Pilger with an ax he claims he found in the living room of the Pleasant Pointe Drive home. He stole Pilger's car and drove back to Florida, knowing police would come for him eventually.
Red Corn said yesterday that prosecutors don't believe all of Russell's story. She said there is no evidence Pilger had pictures of Russell's son.
Since Russell had just gotten out of prison, "the chances of him having a photograph is remote," she said.
Russell had little to say about his crime yesterday. "I know what I did was wrong, so I can't deny it," he told Payne.
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