Russell convicted of murder, sentenced to 70 years in prison

Brian Russell leaves the Ashley County Courthouse after being convicted Thursday on charges of first degree murder, abuse of a corpse and felon in possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to a total of 70 years in prison. Russell's convictions were for his role in the January 2018 murder of Shannon Ridener of Crossett. (VAL GAUGHT/News Observer)

An Ashley County jury has found Brian Russell guilty in the death of Shannon Ridener.

Russell, of Crossett, was convicted Thursday on charges of first degree murder, abuse of a corpse and felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the three charges; 40 years for murder; 20 for felon in possession of a gun; and 10 for abuse of a corpse. The sentences are to run consecutively, meaning that the 20 year sentence will not begin until the 40 year sentence expires, and the 10 year sentence will not begin until the 20 year sentence ends.

Ridener's minor son reported her missing in mid-January 2018, and  her body was found in a neighboring county Feb. 15.

The state medical examiner's autopsy found that Ridener died of a gunshot wound to the head, ruling the manner of death a homicide.

Russell — who was already in jail in Ashley County on unrelated charges — was charged in the case in March.

During the investigation, the police recovered surveillance videos of Russell and Ridener at a convenience store in Bastrop wearing the same clothes she was found in, and affidavits filed with the court said when he was arrested for DWI Jan. 14 — the day after Ridener was last seen alive — his clothes appeared to be covered in blood.  

Full coverage will follow in the Ashley News Observer and at ashleynewsobserver.com

UPDATE:

Though he alleged he was a victim of misunderstanding and even conspiracy, an Ashley County jury convicted Brian Russell of Crossett of murder Thursday.

Russell, 58, was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the three charges in the case — first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse and felon in possession of a firearm — which resulted from the January 2018 murder of Shannon Ridener, 39, of Crossett.

Ridener was found dead under a bridge a month after she disappeared, and when asking the jury to return a guilty verdict, Deputy Prosecutor Sandra Bradshaw asked them to consider the disrespect Ridener’s body had been shown.

“He threw her out like trash, animals ate on her body and her family couldn’t have a visitation and say goodbye,” Bradshaw said. “You are the face of justice. You send whatever message you think you need to send.”

After receiving Judge Bynum Gibson’s instructions, the jury went into deliberation at approximately 1:48 p.m. and returned at around 3:35 p.m. with the verdict.

The jury in the trial had been seated at approximately 10:25 a.m., and in the following hours the prosecution introduced 48 pieces of evidence.

A report from the scene where Ridener’s body was found in Bradley County stated that, “the body was barefoot, and appeared to have been in the water for an extended period of time.”

Witnesses told the jury that Russell was a suspect early on because he was on video with Ridener at a gas station in Louisiana on Jan. 13, 2018, the day her family told authorities they had last seen her.

Russell was arrested in Monticello Jan. 14, 2018, the day after Ridener was last seen alive, for alleged DWI. At the time of the arrest, Russell had what appeared to be blood on his clothing in his car.

During the investigation, investigators determined that the blood on Russell’s pants and vehicle was Ridener’s. Samples of blood recovered at Russell’s house also proved to be the victim’s. Investigators also found the victim’s cell phone at his residence.

When Ridener’s body was found, the clothes on her corpse matched the clothes she was wearing in the video with Russell the day she disappeared. The Nike tennis shoes Ridener was wearing were recovered in the back seat of Russell’s car while it was impounded in Drew County.

Other evidence showed that Russell’s blood was also found in multiple places in the house in addition to Ridener’s, a fact that the prosecution said suggested there was a struggle.

Blood was found in the living room carpet, on a mattress, bed frame, on a blanket, in a closet, on the bathroom door and in the utility room, among other places.

Investigators also recovered .22 caliber shell casings from the driveway, carport and living room.

When arguing Russell’s case, the defense claimed Ridener’s death was a suicide that Russell tried to hide in a state of panic.

Russell’s attorney, Leonardo Monterry, argued that Ridener shot herself and introduced witnesses who said that Ridener was having a hard time in life at the time of the incident. Witnesses testified that Ridener was homeless and hungry and drinking more than average at the time of the murder.

Russell took the witness stand and said that he had spent the final evening of Ridener’s life with her, and that they had purchased a large quantity of alcohol. Ridener drank the most of it early in the night, he said.

Russell told the jury that he and Ridener went to the store where they were seen on camera at twice, once for her to purchase liquor with her own money and again after he had picked up a check for $100 from a relative’s house.

Each time they purchased significant quantities of whiskey and vodka. Russell said that Ridener was drinking an above average amount that night and that he drank much less than she did.

Russell said that Ridener voluntarily went with him to his residence to watch a movie and spend the night at his house. Russell said that at some point in the night Ridener played with his gun, but he told her to put it away because it was loaded. Russell said he had retreated to his bed to sleep and woke up to a gunshot.

“I was awakened by a bang, I stood up my legs hit her feet and there was smoke coming out of the side of her head,” he said.

As part of their arguments, defense presented Russell’s visibly deformed hands to the jury and stated that he had been burned severely by fish grease 11 years ago and it wasn’t probable that he shot her without a thumb. The defense also pointed out that Ridener was right handed and the gun shot wound was in the right side of Ridener’s head.

Medical Examiner Frank Peretti confirmed that Ridener died from a gunshot wound to the right side of her head, and the defense provided the jury with xray photographs of the bullet in the victim’s head.

The medical examiner said that it could not be determined if the victim shot herself or was shot by someone else, telling the court that the bullet wound was a contact wound and that Ridener was killed by a .22 caliber pistol.

Peretti also testified that parts of the victim’s body couldn’t be properly examined because of decay and damage done by prolonged exposure to the elements and damage done by animals. Peretti said that he was unable to confirm or deny some of the other questions from the attorneys because of the decay.

Perriti said that Ridner didn’t appear to have any other skeletel fractures.

When Deputy Prosecutor Frank Spain asked Russell why he didn’t contact the police or an ambulance when he found Ridener lying in the floor with an apparent gunshot wound, Russell responded that, “I was too busy trying to get rid of her.”

Russell said he put her in the trunk of his vehicle and took her to “no specific place.”

He also denied that the shoes found in his vehicle were Ridener’s and told Spain the shoes were “planted” in his car. When prosecutors questioned Russell about a trash bag recovered from his backseat, he said he did not recall where it came from, telling the court that he did not recall several things about the evening because he was in a state of panic.

Spain said that Russell should have had plenty of time to calm down from the time of the incident until he was arrested in Monticello. Russell agreed that he had driven 40 miles to dispose of Ridener’s personal belongings, another 10 miles to dump her body and was arrested 45 miles away from where he left the body.

Russell testified that he left the body in the woods at the location Spain showed to the jury on an aerial map. The location was in Bradley County near Beech Creek.

Russell said he had no specific reason for choosing the locations where he disposed of Ridener’s personal effects or her body.

Spain asked why Russell lied to the Monticello police about the blood on his clothing and in his car when he was arrested the day after Ridener’s disappearance. Russell told authorities, at that time, the red substance was deer blood.

“I wanted to protect myself,” Russell said.

When Spain asked “from what,” Russell responded, “this.”

In closing arguments, Spain reiterated the portion of Russell’s testimony where Russell admitted he wasn’t concerned about whether the victim was dead or alive.

“He said he flipped out, that he never checked to see if she was alive or dead because he needed to get her out of there,” Spain said.

Spain put the photo of Ridener as she was found in Bradley County on the screen.

“She told her son she wanted to go out, she wanted to have fun, and this is the fun she got,” he said.

Members of the defense counsel argued that “both of them were drunk” and that “it was not right what he did,” but asked the jury to look at the defendant’s history. Russell had never been convicted of a violent crime, they argued, and his only prior arrests were on methamphetamine charges. Russell is a “country man,” they argued before saying “he did what he shouldn’t have done.”

While the defense counsel said they weren’t asking for the jury to exonorate Russell or let him off scot-free, they instead wanted jurors to keep an open mind because there was no evidence of fighting or struggles and that “Brian got scared.”

After the jury returned its verdict, the trial entered the sentencing phase.

Each side was then allowed to call two witnesses for the sentencing part of the hearing.

The jury heard from two members of the victim’s family and two members of the defendant’s family before hearing closing statements from the prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The defense counsel asked for mercy, while prosecutors said that Russell had already been given one second chance as he was on probation at the time of Ridener’s murder. Spain said Russell was breaking the law by even possessing the firearm, but to make matters worse, he committed murder.

“He killed her and to top it off, he threw her out like trash,” Spain said.

The prosecutors told the jury that they couldn’t recommend certain sentences, but could only ask that the jury really consider what the defendant was guilty of as they were choosing his sentence.

Bradshaw told the jury that Russell robbed a family of closure because Ridener’s family wasn’t able to have a proper funeral. Russell also put the victim’s family through a month of uncertainity when he knew all along their search would be fruitless.

“He knew where she was while her family was searching for her,” Bradshaw said.

The jury returned with a recommendation of a 40 year sentence on the first degree murder charge, a 20 year sentence on the felon in possession of a firearm charge and a 10 year sentence on an abuse of a corpse sentence.

All of the sentences were to run consecutively, making for a total of 70 years.

Russell left the courtroom in the custody of the Ashley County Sheriff Tommy Sturgeon and was escorted out by one of the deputies.

He was laughing and blowing kisses to the visible news cameras as he was escorted in handcuffs from the courthouse to the transport vehicle.

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