Over the objections of the victim’s daughters and prosecutors, a two-member panel of the Board of Parole Hearings granted parole to Susan Lee Russo, who masterminded the murder-for-hire of her husband in the 1990s, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office said Friday.
Russo, 62, was originally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the death of David Russo, a senior chief petty officer at Lemoore Naval Air Station.
At the trial, she was called “the black widow” by a prosecutor and a lawyer for a co-defendant.
Last year, the sentence was commuted to 25 years to life in prison by Gov. Jerry Brown, making her eligible for parole. Brown must review the parole decision and can block her release or ask the full board to review the case.
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Russo was convicted on Jan. 30, 1996, of first-degree murder and conspiracy.
The Lemoore Naval Air Station serviceman, 43, was shot in the back of the head on July 14, 1994, while asleep in his Riverdale home. Two of the Russo children were asleep in another room.
Russo cleaned the murder scene, shampooed rugs and washed walls, the District Attorney’s Office said. His body was found in the back seat of the family car bundled in a sleeping bag. The car was found on a levee in Kings County.
Prosecutors accused Russo of asking Jason Wesly Andrews and Bobby Leon Morris, both of whom were convicted, to commit the murder so she could collect $1 million in insurance money and buy a new house. She also was convicted of trying to solicit the murder of Morris after she was arrested.
The jury found two special findings – that the killer was lying in wait and that the slaying was for financial gain. Despite no prior criminal record, Russo received a sentence of 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.
Russo and her husband had been married three years. He had been in the Navy 21 years, the last three in Lemoore.
Judge Ralph Nunez, the trial judge, sent a letter to the parole board that Russo “should never be released on parole.”
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, she has worked to “transform” and had “turned away from violence and drugs,” Brown said last year.
Russo said she 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.
Morris, 51, remains in prison at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, and Andrews, 44, is in prison at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy.