After Circuit Judge Brian Howell pronounced the sentence, Jeniffer Morris, Sollohub’s mother, hugged District Attorney Brian McVeigh.
Morris said she had been ready to accept whatever decision came back, but she had hoped that Howell would sentence Russell to death.
McVeigh said he was glad Sollohub’s family got what they asked for.
“This had to have been a very difficult decision for the court but I’m glad he made the decision that he did,” McVeigh said.
Prosecutors say that on Aug. 24, 2011, Russell shot the 27-year-old police officer in the head with a .22 caliber pistol as Sollohub pursued him near 19th Street and Moore Avenue. Russell said he ran from Sollohub because he was carrying a stolen gun and there were warrants out for his arrest. Russell was captured after an hours-long manhunt in the neighborhood where Sollohub, who died in a Birmingham hospital the next day, was found shot.
A Lee County jury sentenced Russell, 26, to life in prison without the possibility of parole in September, but Alabama law allows judges to override a jury’s recommendation.
More than 100 people heard testimony from Russell and Sollohub’s family members and friends, a clinical psychologist and deputies from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office.
“This has been the most difficult decision I’ve had to make,” Howell said after the testimony ended. “Regardless of what I do, this man will never see freedom again.”
Behavior in prison
Lorna Clark, Russell’s aunt, testified that she has seen improvements in her nephew’s behavior since he’s been in jail.
“I’ve seen changes in him to where he understands what he has done,” she said.
Clark said Russell has a positive relationship with his 5-year-old daughter even though he has been locked up. She said he is humble, expresses remorse all the time, prays and reads the Bible.
“He doesn’t have all the outside stuff to take him away from all that,” she said.
Clark’s daughter, Kim, said Russell and his daughter, who they have taken to visit him regularly, “have the best relationship they can with the circumstances.”
During the Lee County trial and Monday’s hearing, Russell’s family members told the jury and Howell that Russell had been raised in a bad environment and was on medicine for ADHD.
Though Russell’s family said they noticed changes in his behavior, deputies with the Etowah County Jail testified they have not.
McVeigh said since Russell has been in the Etowah County Jail, he has had six disciplinary incidents and has covered up the cameras in his cell more than twice. Because he has been uncooperative, correctional officers have had to use pepper balls — projectile weapons made up of powdered chemicals that irritate the nose and eyes — and stun guns on him, prosecutors said.
Etowah County Deputy William Gilmer, assigned to detail on Russell in 2012, had asked Russell if he shot Sollohub and Russell said he had, Gilmer testified. When asked if he had any remorse for Sollohub’s death, Russell said, according to the deputy, “He shouldn’t have been chasing me and got what he deserved.”
Henry Griffith, a clinical psychologist who testified Monday, said Russell’s diagnosis of ADHD could cause impulsive behavior, much like the way his defense attorney said he reacted when he shot Sollohub.
Griffith said he believed Russell could function in a prison environment with the right stimulant medication.
McVeigh asked Griffith if his diagnosis justified sneaking fecal matter out of a cell for the sole purpose of throwing it on other inmates.
“If I defecate in a box, carry it out of my cell and store it in a trash can to later throw at an inmate, do I have impulsive behavior?” he asked. “Even when he is in isolation he will not behave. Where will he be housed?”
During her own testimony, Sollohub’s mother called Russell a coward and a menace to society. She said because of Russell, her son will never be able to have a family of his own and will never be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot for the Alabama State Troopers.
“None of us deserve what Josh Russell did to us,” she said. “During the trial I heard many excuses for a coward to kill a hero. It sounds to me like the people in his life have made excuses for him. If what he did does not deserve the death penalty, tell me what else he would have had to do.”
Clark’s daughter tearfully said her family hasn’t made excuses for Joshua’s behavior.
“We’re not selfish people,” Kim said. “We are truly sorry for what happened to your son.”
Before the final ruling, John Robbins, Russell’s court-appointed attorney, asked Howell to consider both the decision of the Lee County jury and Joshua Russell’s background. While the jury found Russell guilty of capital murder, they also recommended life without parole instead of the death sentence.
“That’s not something the prosecution can disregard,” he said.
McVeigh said before the sentencing that he had never asked for a judicial override until this case. But, the prosecutor said, he has never had a case such as this before.
“I’m asking the court to override this and put this man to death because he killed an officer in the line of duty for doing his job,” he said.
Howell said by phone Monday there were a variety of factors that influenced his decision.
Howell said he took new testimony offered Monday, other capital cases he has tried and the recommendations from the Lee County jury into consideration before making his ruling.
“I thought it was the appropriate thing to do,” he said.
A message left for Robbins was not immediately returned Monday night and Russell’s family declined to comment on the sentencing after the decision.
Morris said after the hearing that regardless of whatever the judge decided, she appreciates what those with the Calhoun County DA’s office have done. She said they have represented Justin and her family “to the greatest.”
“That’s exactly what we were asking for,” she said. “I believed that’s what we would get. I had hoped that’s what we would get.”
Though Sollohub’s family has received closure for the ordeal, Morris said, she believes she will likely see Russell again, whether it be at an appeal or at a hearing.
“I think we have a long road ahead of us, but this part’s over and we’re glad for the decision made today,” she said.
Staff Writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @MCzebiniak_Star.