Susan Russo has spent more than two decades in prison, with no hope of getting out.
That changed this week through the actions of California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The now 62-year-old Russo, a Riverdale homemaker when sentenced in 1996 to a life sentence without parole in the murder-for-hire killing of her husband, now will have the chance to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings to determine if she should one day be released.
Brown signed a Commutation of Sentence letter, writing that “Ms. Russo has worked tirelessly to leave violence and drugs behind and set her life on a positive course while incarcerated.”
It was one of 72 pardons and seven commutations Brown issued Saturday ahead of Easter, the majority covering old crimes dealing with drugs and other lower-level offenses.
Russo’s case was anything but low level. She was convicted on Jan. 30, 1996, of first-degree murder and conspiring with others to kill David Russo. Two of his children were asleep in another room.
The Lemoore Naval Air Station serviceman, 43, was shot July 14, 1994, while he was asleep in his Riverdale home. The prosecution accused Susan Russo of asking Jason Wesly Andrews and Bobby Leon Morris, both of whom were subsequently convicted, to commit the murder so she could collect $1 million in insurance money and buy a new house.
As a result, the jury found applicable two special findings – that the killer was lying in wait and the slaying was for financial gain.
Because of the special findings, Russo, despite no prior criminal record, received mandatory life in prison without parole.
“She ruined our family,” David Russo’s mother, Jane, was quoted in The Bee at the time of the sentencing, adding that her daughter-in-law had never shown remorse.
“The consideration of commutation is a solemn responsibility that is never taken lightly. The voices of victims and their families are profoundly important in every case the governor reviews,” Evan Westrup, a spokesperson for Brown’s office, said. “These voices are also an integral part of the parole consideration process, in which they have an opportunity to be present and to be heard.”
In her application for commutation, Russo said she grew up in an abusive environment, alleged that she was physically abused by her husband, and that she and her husband were abusing methamphetamine at the time.
Since entering prison, Brown stated, she has worked to “transform” and had “turned away from violence and drugs.”
“While I do not discount the seriousness of her crime,” Brown wrote, “I believe that her subsequent behavior is exemplary and warrants commutation.”
As evidence, the commutation letter indicated that in 23 years behind bars, Russo had never been disciplined for a rules violation. One correctional officer stated that she was “well respected by myself as well as her peers.”
Russo has taken college-level courses; completed a vocational training program in upholstery; volunteered as a literacy tutor; was a member of the Women’s Advisory Council; participated in programs such as Victim Awareness, Family Restoration, Narcotics Anonymous; and co-founded the Prison and Peace program.
“I literally had to lose everything – children, family, friends, and overcome a drug addiction, but I succeeded and I am proud of my accomplishments,” Russo wrote in her application for commutation.
Brown said Russo, permanently disabled and suffering from “very serious medical issues,” has “earned the chance to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings to make her case so they can determine whether she is ready to be released from prison.”