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Gov. Jerry Brown decides against parole for woman dubbed a ‘black widow'

Gov. Jerry Brown decides against parole for woman dubbed a ‘black widow'
Gov. Jerry Brown has denied the release of Susan Lee Russo a year after he commuted her life sentence, which allowed her a chance at parole. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday blocked the parole of a 63-year-old woman whom prosecutors dubbed a “black widow” because she had her husband killed.

Brown denied the release of Susan Lee Russo a year after he commuted her life sentence, which allowed her a chance at parole. A parole board in January recommended that she be freed.

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Russo was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the 1994 slaying of 43-year-old David Russo. He was a U.S. Navy chief petty officer serving at Lemoore Naval Air Station, south of Fresno.

She is still a public safety risk who “has more work to do,” Brown decided.

A parole board investigation into her claims of being battered by her husband came back inconclusive after Brown commuted her sentence last year.

Russo arranged to pay her boyfriend $100 to kill her husband so she could collect benefits as his surviving spouse, including a nearly $1 million insurance policy, authorities said. She let the boyfriend and an accomplice into her home, where they shot her husband and disposed of his body, they said.

When he commuted her sentence, Brown said there was evidence that Russo was frequently physically abused by her husband, and she said she was heavily using methamphetamine, including with her husband.

“In my thinking I was protecting myself and my children from an abusive husband and father,” Russo said in her handwritten 2012 clemency petition.

But her daughter Devon Russo, who was 2 when her father was killed, called her mother a “master manipulator” who she said made up the story that she was abused by her husband. Devon Russo said in a public letter that she and her sister “were totally blindsided” by Brown's decision to allow their mother a chance at parole.

The Democratic governor decided to reject that parole after nine Republican lawmakers as well as Fresno County law enforcement officials objected to his commutation. Russo's daughters, who were in another bedroom during the killing, said their mother is still dangerous.

“I'm standing before you today in a position no one’s child should ever be in. I’m a daughter asking for her mother to not be allowed home,” Jamie Guarino told the parole board.

She was 12 when she heard noises and peeked out her bedroom door, she said.

“I saw my father get shot. I heard the bullet go through the pillow,” she said. She said she later heard her mother and boyfriend “having sex in the bed they just killed my dad in.”

“She’s still a threat to everyone,” Guarino said. “My dad doesn’t get to come home, so why should she?”

State Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) called Susan Lee Russo “a psychopath who has a history of manipulating people for her own purposes.” His letter to Brown was signed by eight other Republican legislators.

Russo’s accomplices also were convicted. She was convicted of seeking to solicit the murder of one of them after she was arrested.

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