Covering Kentucky

Sep 21, 2012 1:14 PM

Ky. Man Loses Appeal in Death of Pedophile Priest

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A Lexington man with a history of mental issues cannot show that incompetence prevented him from trying to withdraw his guilty plea to beating to death a convicted sex offender and retired priest with a pickax, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The court found that 35-year-old Jason Anthony Russell failed to show that his mental issues were severe enough to stop him from filing an appeal by Oct. 26, 2008 - three years to the day his conviction became final and the legal deadline for legally attacking the plea.

Judge Michelle Keller wrote for a three-judge panel that Russell failed to present any evidence of the nature of his incompetency and how it prevented him from attempting to withdraw his guilty plea within three years of going to prison.

"Russell's factual argument, that he has been incompetent since his arrest and initial incarceration, is not persuasive," Keller wrote.

Russell is serving a 30-year sentence at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. His projected release date is Dec. 12, 2033.

He pleaded guilty in 2005 in Lexington to attacking and killing 78-year-old Joseph Pilger, who previously admitted to abusing four boys in western Kentucky in the 1960s when he was a pastor in Sturgis. Russell avoided a possible death sentence with the plea.

Pilger was found dead on Dec. 3, 2003.

Russell's attorney, Daniel Canon of Louisville, said his client was never given an opportunity by the trial court to prove his mental incompetence at a hearing.

"The court simply held that he should have been 'aware of his own incompetence,'" Cannon said. "That conclusion is, as we said in the brief, absurd. This opinion rubber-stamps the abject failure by a prison to properly medicate a prisoner."

Russell argued that the time limit should have been lifted because, due to a lack of appropriate medication, he was incompetent to appeal while in prison. Russell provided the court with mental evaluations dating to 1998 showing he was diagnosed with "undifferentiated schizophrenia." He also underwent a psychiatric exam after being indicted for Pilger's slaying.

A physician found him competent if medicated after that exam.

Keller, though, found that nothing in the medical records was convincing about the impact of Russell's mental illness on his knowledge of his legal rights.

In 1995, Pilger pleaded guilty to abusing four boys in Western Kentucky when he was their pastor during the late 1960s at St. Francis Borgia Roman Catholic Church in Sturgis. In exchange for the confession, prosecutors recommended probation.

Pilger was found dead on Dec. 3, 2003.

Russell, who alleges he was sexually abused as a child, had been released from prison about two months before the slaying and lived with Pilger.

Russell has said he decided to kill him after the retired priest offered $5,000 to have sex with Russell's then-6-year-old son. Russell also claims that he had twice walked in on the retired priest masturbating with photos of Russell's son and catalog clippings of other children.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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