What does the former Washington State University student who fled to Ireland after being charged with vehicular homicide have in common with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Nothing, so far as I can tell, except his initials.
Which explains, I suspect, why Frederick David Russell's attorney calls him FDR to jurors. Call in the jury consultants here, but is the attorney betting that he can subconsciously soften-up jurors by adopting the presidential nickname for his client who's accused of murder-by-car?
A little background here. Last Friday, I was sent to Kelso, Wash., in the southwest corner of the state to cover opening statements in Russell's trial. It's been more than six years since Russell, now 28, allegedly triggered a fiery and deadly car crash on the highway between Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Wash. At the time, Russell was a student in the criminal justice department at WSU, and his father was dean of the program.
Four months after the accident, Russell fled the country and ended up living under a pseudonym in Ireland for four years before being captured and extradited. The case has become something of an international sensation.
According to prosecutors, Russell was drunk and speeding on the night of June 4, 2001, when his Chevy Blazer crossed a double-yellow line and collided with several cars, including a Cadillac full of other WSU students coming home from the movies. Three were killed, and three others were seriously injured.
The trial has been moved from Whitman County in Eastern Washington to Cowlitz County because the judge was concerned he couldn't find an impartial jury.
In opening statements, the prosecution laid out a straightforward case. They allege Russell and a friend spent the evening of the crash drinking in Pullman and then headed for Moscow. Prosecutors say Russell was driving as fast as 90 mph when he came upon a slower car. He went to pass it in a no-passing zone and collided with three of the four oncoming vehicles.
Assistant Attorney General Melanie Tratnik, who's prosecuting the case, says Russell walked away from the crash with barely a scratch. In fact, she says, a witness saw him standing by the side of the road after the accident, nursing a bloody lip and smoking a cigarette. He also reportedly smelled of alcohol. A blood test later showed Russell's blood alcohol level was 0.12 - well over the 0.08 legal limit.
For opening statements, the prosecution was all business. But the defense put on a show.
Besides calling his client FDR, attorney Francisco Duarte, whose law firm calls itself "the complete DUI defense firm," used toy cars and a hand-drawn map in an attempt to begin casting doubt on the prosecution's case. Apparently, they don't make Chevy Blazer replicas, so Russell's car was depicted by a miniature Hummer.
Duarte seemed to be suggesting that the driver Russell was allegedly passing might have caused the accident by forcing Russell to swerve. To build his case, Duarte told the jury that that driver left the scene of the accident, didn't report that he was a witness for at least two hours, and has told an inconsistent story of what happened leading up to the crash. "This case is about the cause of the accident. Is FDR responsible for this accident? And we have maintained all along that he's not," Duarte told jurors.
Duarte also argued Russell's blood test can't be trusted because the state toxicology lab threw out the samples. That mistake, Duarte says, raises serious questions about the competency of lab workers and the reliability of the blood alcohol test. It also makes it impossible for the defense to independently verify the blood alcohol level.
As for why Russell fled to Ireland, Duarte says his client had received death threats and was scared for life. Duarte told jurors that Russell had been turned into "public enemy No. 1" in Pullman.
During opening statements, Russell - in a suit and tie, his red hair buzzed short - took notes on a yellow pad and was expressionless. His mother is reportedly attending the trial, but there's been no mention of his father in news reports.
Shortly after the accident, Russell's father took a job as a criminal justice professor at Arkansas State University. In a bizarre aside to his son's legal troubles, the Jonesboro, Ark., newspaper this summer reported that the elder Russell had resigned his position amid a rape allegation by a female student.
The Russell trial is expected to last several weeks. Karen Overacker of Wapato, Wash., says she will live in an RV so she can attend each day. Overacker's 22-year old son, Brandon Clements, was among those killed in the accident. "I feel like we've waited long enough for justice to be served and for him (Russell) to be held accountable for this crash and I feel like it's the last thing that I can do for my son is see this through," says Overacker.
If convicted, Russell could spend 10 to 14 years in prison.