Recidivist Chutes and Ladders: The Russell Burton Record

The children’s board game, Chutes and Ladders, offers a clearer template for understanding our criminal justice system than a hundred studies put forth by academicians and think tanks.  Here is one example:

Russell Burton, who has been called a “Ted Bundy in the making,” was born in 1967.  According to the Los Angeles Daily News, when Burton was 17, he was arrested in Lancaster, California and charged with “breaking into a woman’s apartment and fondling her in bed.”  “Fondling” is a troubling term here: you fondle your child, or a puppy.  When you break into a woman’s house and try to rape her, that isn’t “fondling.” (“81 Years for Sexual Predator,” L.A. Daily News, 4/27/05, fee for link)

LADDERS:  But apparently, the judge felt otherwise.  A Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge allowed Burton to avoid prosecution for B & E and attempted rape — by joining the Army.  The Army accepted him, and he was stationed in Georgia.  Thus, in 1984, nearly ten years after the first hard-won battle for rape law reform, the sentence for breaking into a woman’s house and attempting to rape her could still be no sentence at all.

Columbus, Georgia has paid a high price in violent sex crimes.  Several serial offenders have cut a bloody path through that town —  and the Army did precious little to stop at least two of them.

On September 3, 1987, Burton pulled alongside a car being driven by three teenage girls in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, where he was stationed.  He got the girls to pull over by indicating that something was wrong with their car, pointed a gun at them, and forced them to drive to a remote area.  He raped one girl and orally sodomized the other two.

Benning was 19 years old when he committed this crime.  The sophistication of the attack and the high risk involved — multiple victims, gun use, confrontation in a public place, abduction from one location to another — indicates that he was already an experienced, violent rapist.

CHUTES: In 1988, Burton was sentenced to life for the rape, 20 years for the kidnapping, and 20 years for the sodomy.  He entered prison in Georgia with a life sentence.  There was no sentence of life without parole in Georgia at that time.

Astonishingly, life without parole only became an option in Georgia a few week ago, during the 2009 Georgia General Assembly (previously, a prosecutor had to try for the death penalty to qualify a case for life without parole).  Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Democrats controlled the Georgia legislature, defense attorneys controlled the judiciary committees.  Credit where credit is due: such sentencing reform only became a reality in Georgia when Republicans took over both chambers.

LADDERS:  In any case, Burton didn’t have to wait for any parole board to cut him loose: the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit did that in February, 2002, fourteen years after he was sent away for life.  The Court granted Burton a new trial on the grounds that the district attorney “inappropriately” mentioned that Burton had exercised his right to remain silent when he was arrested.  Now, I know that constitutional attorneys would argue that mentioning Burton’s demeanor upon arrest is horribly prejudicial and tramples all over his rights.  But this blog isn’t a courtroom, so facts can be stated in plain English here: a violent sexual predator was released from prison because a prosecutor told the truth about what the violent sexual predator did when he was arrested, instead of not telling the truth about it, in a court rigged to let criminals off for virtually anything, instead of designed to discover the actual truth of a case.

Rigged like the fairway games at a sleazy carnival.

Or a dice throw in a children’s board game.  Such is our appeals process.

MORE LADDERS:  Burton was released from prison pending a new trial.  Then somebody decided that it wasn’t worth spending the money to try him again — thus deciding that the safety of women is less valuable than other things we could be spending money on, like appeals for violent rapists like Burton.*  In 2003, he was permitted to plead guilty to one count of rape and three counts of kidnapping in exchange for time served.

MORE CHUTES:  It turned out to be a good thing that Burton was required to plead to a sex offense.  Rapists used to be routinely permitted to plead down to non-sexual offenses.  That is why a high percentage of the first several thousand rapists identified through DNA matches had prior records only for crimes such as substance abuse and burglary, two common pleas that allowed predators to move from place to place and continue committing sex crimes with impunity.

Burton moved back to California and was required to register as a sex offender, which turned out to be one of the many, many thousands of good things that arise from sex offender registries — things you will never read about in any newspaper, of course.  Newspapers depict registering sex offenders as terribly cruel and ineffectual.

Anyway, after the good judges of the 11th Circuit threw Burton’s life sentence out on a technicality, and after the State of Georgia declined to try him again, it took him less than a year to go on a violent, crazed hunting spree against women.  It may have taken even less time, for there are no guarantees that Burton didn’t attack women in Columbus, or elsewhere in Georgia, or Alabama while he was awaiting the re-trial that never happened.

What is certain is that in 2004, freshly arrived from Georgia, he stalked and tried to abduct a woman in a parking lot in Palmdale, California.  The woman escaped.  He then attacked a teenager with a knife, trying to drag her into his car.  She escaped, and he was arrested.  After his arrest, three young girls came forward and reported the following crime:

The girls said a man approached them at the store saying he had car trouble and needed a ride, Lankford said. When he climbed into their car, he threatened one girl with a screwdriver and forced the sisters to take him to another town and back. He then forced one sister to drive his car while he rode with the other two. At a second parking lot the sister driving his car jumped out, and the man ran to his car and sped away. (“Felon Chargd in New Crimes,” Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, 3/2/04, fee for link)

These are the types of crimes that end with children’s bodies melting in the desert.  Luckily, those five victims escaped, but who didn’t?

By 2004, Burton was a fluent advocate for his own rights.  Upon arrest, he said to the police, “I’m a child molester, I want my phone call, and I want my attorney.” (ibid.)  Here is where the sex offender registry comes in: had he not been listed as a sex offender, he certainly would not have mentioned his prior convictions, and he might have been let free to await trial before the three young girls had time to see him in the newspaper or the judge learned of his record in Georgia.  Such things happen all the time, as readers of this blog know.

So the sex offender registry law may have saved lives in California that week.  The next time you read a news story condemning registries, remember Russell Burton.

CHUTES: In 2004, Burton was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and found guilty of stalking, attempted kidnapping, making terroristic threats, and possession of cocaine.  His sentence for these crimes illustrate the effectiveness of California’s “three-strikes and you’re out” laws:

Burton’s sentence consisted of three terms of 25 years to life plus a one-year weapons enhancement and a five-year prior-serious-felony enhancement. (“Rapist’s Sentence Cut by 25 Years,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10/30/06, fee for link)

A dozen years earlier, prior to sentencing reform, Burton would likely not have received such a long sentence for these crimes, even though he has proven that he poses a serious threat.  And without the “three-strikes” rule, any sentence he did receive would have been slashed automatically the moment he set foot in prison.

LADDERS and CHUTES:  Burton immediately set to appealing his new convictions.  Why not?  In 2006, an appeals court agreed to throw out one of his 25-year sentences, the one for stalking, on the grounds that following a woman from one shopping mall to another did not rise to the level of stalking (the more people learn about the substance of most appeals, the better).  But in addition to doing this, the 2nd District Court of Appeals of California also rejected Burton’s claim that the three-strikes law constituted cruel and unusual punishment because so much time (14 years, to be precise) had elapsed between his crimes.  Here is what the court had to say, as reported in the Los Angeles Post:

“His prior strikes were for serious, violent offenses. So were two of the three convictions for which he was originally sentenced here, presently including the attempted kidnapping of a young woman, using a knife,” the ruling said.

“The interim between the two sets of offenses was consumed mostly by imprisonment, which did not restrain appellant from recommencing the same type of crime upon release. Given appellant’s unbroken history of violent crime, we cannot find this case to be one of the admittedly rare ones in which the recidivist sentence is unconstitutional,” the appeals court said.

CHUTES, CHUTES, CHUTES.  It looks as if Burton has finally lost in his bid to be free, thanks to the public outrage over repeat offenders that inspired changes in state laws and sentencing policies.  We won the game, this time.

But none of these laws are carved in stone, and many voices, including highers-up in the new Justice Department administration, are clamoring to roll back sentencing guidelines, overturn three-strikes laws, and eliminate sex offender registries.  The federal Adam Walsh law, requiring states to participate in a national registration system, is officially in limbo, short-circuiting the next stage of information-sharing between the states.  We’re at an information impasse in other ways, too: if any private industry in America had an IT network resembling that used by most courts, they would cease to exist.

The price of incarceration is eternal vigilance, too.

*Re-trying Burton doubtlessly would have been difficult, especially for the victims.  And it is always a risk to involve jurors in rape cases, for prejudices against rape victims persist and in many ways have grown stronger.  Too many people feel it is their duty to root for convicts as under-dogs, and they stupidly romanticize anyone appealing a case — until it’s their own daughter or mother who gets raped.  But difficulties like this are also used as an excuse to do nothing at all to restrain violent offenders in the interest of saving money in an overwhelmed and under-staffed court system.  This should have been a case where all stops were pulled out to keep Burton in prison.


11 thoughts on “Recidivist Chutes and Ladders: The Russell Burton Record”

  1. You are very right, the court systems messed up many peoples lives by letting him go not just once, but many times. Unfortunately, I personally know Russell Burton, he is my ex brother-in-law. I was an advocate for him when he was in Waycross, GA. I have never felt worse than I did when he went back to California and did it yet again.

  2. I served with Burton in the military. I was there in court when he was tried. All of us our platoon thought that he was innocent of the crimes mentioned in the Georgia case.

    His alibi included him being with his wife at the time with some friends, poison oak (from being out in the field) on his genitals and not having the family car at the time of the incident. On top of that, the prosecuting attorney was running for office in the one light (literally) town. Everyone felt that he was innocent and was a victim of freak coincidences.

    I remember his team leader at the time reading the crime report, from the newspaper, out loud to the platoon. The description of Burton and the car used in the crime had an uncanny similarity to Burton to the point that Sgt. Hartman said, “Damn Burton, this sounds like they’re talkin’ about you! Better watch out or they’ll arrest for mistaken identity.” Which, to our amazement, eventually happened. We continued to joke about it since we “knew” Burton wasn’t the offender. To be fooled is an understatement.

    It wasn’t until this recent event that I(we) can now see that Burton was an expert liar as well as a violent criminal. It puts into question, ones ability to discern truth from lies, good from evil. Something was/is wrong with Russell. I am sad to join the ranks that say that he should be locked up forever, or put down like a rabid dog.

    I feel bad for Russell’s father, who sat with us in court that day in Georgia, who adamantly believed that it was impossible that his son could have done this.

  3. I’m reading this and feel horrible. I knew Russell, I was his girlfriend in QHHS. I remember talking to him on the phone when he was going through court, him telling me all the coincidences, that they were lying, etc. I believed him so thoroughly. This still doesn’t sound like the Russ I knew, but to read what he did in Palmdale puts it all together. I’m so sad.

  4. I feel so sad as I read this. I knew Russell and his wife while stationed at Ft. Benning. We were in the same platoon. We often went out to dinner. We actually lived in the same trailer park. I did not realize he got life in the trail in GA. They should have kept him there. Feel so, so bad for the victims.

  5. I dated Russell when I was a senior in high school. I visited him down below when he had a broken arm. I saw him again when he had said he owned a business called carpet keepers. Then we lost contact. He was always sweet and very charming to me. I began looking for him when it was time for our class reunion when one of our classmates forwarded me the article of his crimes. I could not believe it. Wow he fooled us all. My heart goes out to all the victims, his family, classmates and friends. He is where he needs to be. It is awful and so sad.

  6. I knew Russell Burton in high school. I met him in Mr. Gardener’s photoraphy class at Palmdale High School. He wasn’t in the class but he kept showing up and getting kicked out. We looked a lot alike. But he was much more confident and charming than I was. He was year behind me but I looked up to him. We ditched class one day and went to my house where we each snuck one of my Dad’s beers and watched Beast Master on HBO. He became my best friend. We went to parties and chased girls together.

    I never saw this side of him. The worst thing I ever saw was him knocking on my bedroom window one night and asking if he could sleep in my closet because his Mom had kicked him out of the house. I thought it was weird that he wanted to sleep in the closet but figured it was best so my parents wouldn’t walk in and catch me having an uninvited guest. I have to wonder now if he was hiding from the police instead.

    Russell introduced me to a list he at first called the “Nasty Nine” and later renamed the “Dirty Dozen”. He was trying to get with every type of girl; every hair color, every race, and various physical attributes. He dated a friend of mine whom he considered his “midget” on the list because of her small stature. He also kept a tally of each sex act he was able to perform or have performed on him and how many times it happened. I was a young, dumb, horny teenager. I didn’t see it for what it was. He always brushed it off as good clean fun and encouraged me to make my own list. But there were moments when I sensed a callousness toward the girls on his list. I was uncomfortable with it, but I never imagined it to be anything more than adolescent shenanigans.

    Looking back, I see so many red flags. Little things that on there own seemed innocent enough. When he dropped my friend out of his bedroom window naked after sex I assumed they had a big fight and he was being a jerk. I may have even blamed her. When he climbed up to the second story bedroom window of a girl in the Country Club Estates at midnight I thought he was the living embodiment of a John Hughes character.

    He joined the Army about a year after I joined the Navy. I didn’t know he was doing it to avoid jail time. I thought he was following in my footsteps.

    When he was arrested in Georgia I immediately came to his defense. It was unthinkable to me that he could ever do such a thing. Kidnapping, raping, and sodomizing three girls all at once seemed logistically impossible to me. He had to be innocent. So I worked with his sister and his mother to fight for his release. I helped them write letters and stuff.

    A few months later I started receiving crank phone calls. Several times a day someone would call the house. When I answered I could tell that someone was on the line but they didn’t say anything. The calls began to increase to over a dozen each day. I finally had to have my number changed. But the calls kept coming. They became even more frequent. They came one right after another. I yelled into the phone. I cursed, threatened, and blew a whistle into the phone but the calls kept coming.

    One day my roommate was out of town and I had the apartment to myself. So when the next call came I tried something different. I kept calm. I didn’t raise my voice or threaten the caller. I just… talked. I kept the person on the line. I reassured the person that it was safe to talk to me. I could tell the person was still on the line but I couldn’t get a response. Finally I told the person that I was going to ask some questions and they could press a button on the phone once for “yes” and twice for “no”. I asked if the person understood. The phone beeped once. My blood filled with ice water. I became very afraid at first. There really was a person on the other end of the phone. I felt vulnerable but I kept asking questions and I kept getting answers. This went on for a long time. I did my best to help the person feel comfortable. I wanted them to talk! I wanted to hear that voice so I could figure out who this asshole was. After a series of questions I finally asked if the person to beep once for male or twice for female. After an incredibly long silence the phone beeped twice. I asked if she had feelings for me. Beep. Okay, so now I knew I had a secret admirer. I was a shy, lonely guy back then so this piqued my curiosity. Now I really wanted to hear her voice. I will never forget the way the bottom fell out of my stomach when she finally spoke and I heard the voice of Russell’s mother. I knew then that Russell was guilty, and that this person helped make him who he had become.

    I never really knew all of the details of Russ’s “other” life. He did a very good job of keeping it hidden from me. We didn’t have the internet back then, so information was limited. I broke off contact with Russell and his family and I moved on with my life. Many years later I went to visit him in jail. He was being held in Los Angeles. I guess I needed closure. I needed to look him in the eye and see the devil for myself. What I saw was the same super charming guy I had always known. Bigger. Stronger. Accustomed to prison life. But also the same guy who looked like me and could charm the socks off of anyone. I never did get a straight answer from him. He said the guards were listening in. He talked me in to depositing money in the commissary for him so he could get snacks and call his family. He asked me to check in on his wife and child, but by this time it felt like a setup. I said goodbye and never looked back.

  7. Not sure if anyone on here will see this as it’s been a few years since the last post but it’s worth a shot. I believe this man to be my father. I’ve never spoken to him, nor have I seen a picture or anything, and at 31 am trying to gain some closure with this part of my life. I’d like to get in touch with anyone who actually knew him, or anyone that knew his ex-wife/wife: T. Blosser, as I believe I may have a half-sibling and would like to know for sure. Thanks for any help.

  8. Curtis,
    I knew Russell and his wife while at Ft. Benning GA. Not sure if this helps or not but feel free to contact me.

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