The man who planned and carried out a murder on a secluded South Whidbey road at Christmastime nine years ago finally faced justice in a courtroom Tuesday morning.
James Huden sat stone-faced during the sentencing hearing in Island County Superior Court as the judge handed down an exceptional sentence of 80 years, virtually guaranteeing that the 55-year-old will die in prison.
He stared without emotion as family members of the victim, 32-year-old Russel Douglas, addressed him and explained how his murderous act changed their lives irrevocably.
He was silent as they pleaded with him to explain why he committed the murder and to name who else was involved.
Following a trial in July, a jury found Huden guilty of first-degree murder while armed with a firearm, plus an aggravating factor that allows the judge to impose an exceptional sentence beyond the standard range. Namely, the jury found that Douglas was particularly vulnerable because he was unsuspecting and seat-belted in his vehicle when he was shot between the eyes.
Huden’s alleged accomplice, former beauty queen Peggy Sue Thomas, has also been charged with murder for allegedly luring Douglas to Wahl Road in Freeland with the promise of a “gift” for his wife. She is scheduled to go to trial in November.
Tuesday, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks asked the judge to impose an exceptional sentence of 80 years in prison, which is two and a half times the top of the standard sentencing range.
“Mr. Huden deserves an exceptional sentence for an exceptionally malevolent crime,” Banks said.
Banks said that Huden has done nothing to warrant mercy. The prosecutor offered him a plea bargain in exchange for information about the crime, but he refused to cooperate. Banks explained that his reasoning for recommending 80 years was based on Douglas’ two children and the assumption that he would have lived 40 years longer if it wasn’t for Huden’s actions.
“They were each robbed of those 40 years of growing up and spending those years with their dad,” he said.
Douglas’ sister, Holly Frasco, wept as she spoke about how Huden stole her brother from her with a single shot that was fired on Dec. 26, 2003. It was her birthday.
“There can no longer be a celebration of my life without the harsh reality that Russ is no longer with us,” she said, asking the judge to ensure that Huden never gets out of prison.
“I was there to give him his first hug but I can never do that again,” his mother, Gail Oneal, said as she faced Huden, “and I was not there to give him his last hug.”
She spoke about how Douglas had been in a toxic relationship with his wife, but had been learning to be a better father when his life was cut short.
“In one split second you pulled the trigger and you killed Russ,” she added. “And you changed our lives and futures forever.”
Douglas’ father and brother, Jim and Matthew Douglas, participated from California through Skype, which was broadcast in the courtroom. Matthew Douglas spoke about his brother’s and his own service in the military and the cruel irony that his brother should die so senselessly.
“As I serve to preserve the health of our American service members in fighting our nation’s conflicts, I know there is no disease and no enemy that represents the same malice as you,” he said.
Jim Douglas described how his son had been working on building a better life and was truly learning the joys of being a father when his life was taken away from him. They had made plans to take his children on trips to the same locations he had taken Douglas as a youngster.
Douglas’ stepfather, Bob Oneal, summed up the frustration of family members over the unanswered questions.
“I’m going to miss my son,” he said, addressing Huden. “I just don’t understand why he is dead because for God’s sake you didn’t even know him. Did you ever investigate anything about him? Did you ever ask to find out anything about who you were killing?”
Again and again, family members pleaded with Huden to explain why he shot a man who was a stranger to him and to say who else was involved, but he was silent. His attorney, Matt Montoya of Oak Harbor, said they are planning to appeal the case so he advised his client not to speak.
In imposing the sentence, Judge Vickie Churchill also focused on Huden’s lack of cooperation with police and all the question marks he’s left behind.
“I too, like many of the family members, would like to know why,” she said. “…There’s something more, you know it, we all know it, but you refuse to speak.”
At trial, the prosecution asserted that Huden’s motivation was premised on his belief that Douglas had been abusive to his children and that he believed “murdering Douglas would serve as a proxy killing of Huden’s own abusive step-father,” according to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum. The family members, however, said Douglas and his wife may have had a difficult relationship, but he was a good father and never abusive.
Douglas’ wife, former Langley resident Brenna Douglas, didn’t attend the sentencing hearing. Banks said he contacted her, but she was worried about exposure if the TV media showed up, which they didn’t.