Sitting emotionless and with his backed turned nearly the entire time, 24-year-old Michael Russell from San Jose listened to 16-year-old Lace Price’s family and a friend as they gave victim impact statements during his sentencing Wednesday.
The judge did not allow NBC Bay Area to record video in court, but they spoke with the Investigative Unit outside showing a mix of grief, anger and forgiveness.
“I understand how hard it must be for [Russell],” said Davis Price, Lace Price’s brother. “I really wanted to forgive him.”
Price’s sister and other brother said they’re not at that point yet and may never be.
“I’m very angry, and I think [Russell] deserves my anger,” said Madelynn Price.
“I wanted him to grasp the reality of the situation for the victims,” said Eli Price. “We can’t come back from this.”
On November 12, 2021, their sister Lace Price died inside Russell’s Corralitos, Calif. Home. The Santa Cruz County Coroner’s Office found a concoction of drugs, including fentanyl, in the 16-year-old’s system.
Russell later agreed to a plea deal, pleading no contest to seven felony sex with a minor and narcotics charges related to Price and another underaged girl.
Looming over this case for months, concerns about why Russell wasn’t criminally linked to Price’s death.
“That was completely on the [Santa Cruz County] Sheriff’s shoulders. This is completely what they did. They didn’t make it a crime scene. They took a 16-year-old girl out of a 23-year-old’s bedroom and didn’t investigate the scene. And we lost her phone and all the drugs that were used,” said Madelynn Price.
For the first time publicly, the prosecutor on the case, Assistant District Attorney Conor McCormick, provided an explanation into why.
“I can understand that frustration and anger…[Lace Price] was obtaining these street drugs from a number of different dealers, and we were unable to ascertain which person gave her the drug that caused her fatality. We don’t have the evidence,” McCormick said in court. “I can see why everyone thinks it was [Mr. Russell]. We know he’s a drug dealer. He gave Price drugs.”
“We did not feel we could charge Mr. Russell with murder. I know you want accountability, but you also need the truth,” McCormick said poignantly directing his words to Price’s family and friends.
Madelynn Price said she wishes the prosecutor would have pinpointed the reason for the lack of evidence: the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
“They didn’t have enough evidence, but they didn’t even say why they didn’t have enough evidence. And it just goes to show that the justice system is always covering their tracks. Like, even if they screw up, they’re not prosecuted for it,” she said.
After nearly a year and more than a dozen requests for comment, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office is still refusing to talk with NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit about the case. Our news team reached out to the agency’s public information officer again Monday and received no response.
As for Michael Russell, his defense attorney Jack Gordon said his client is remorseful.
However, a recently-filed probation report paints a different picture. A probation officer reported interviewing Russell on January 31 where Russell said “he had nothing to do with [Lace Price’s passing]. Russell said he felt “He is going to prison for being three years older than his girlfriend.”
The report goes on to say Russell stated, “It is not like I was being a predator or a weirdo.” Russell felt he is being charged and punished more severely because of Price’s death.
When asked about his general feelings looking back at the offenses, Russell said “if he could go back with a clear mind, he would not do those same things. He would have ‘ID-checked the chick.’”
Russell ended his statement to the probation officer saying “He wishes he could say sorry to the family…but some things are out of his control.”
Russell was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He will also have two strikes on his record and have to register as a sex offender.