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Sheriff Michael Howell, center, holds a press conference to shed light on a recent arrest made in the 23-year-old case involving the murder of Julia McKenzie. To the left are members of McKenzie’s family, and to the right are District Attorney Joe Ficquette, Chief Deputy George Long and investigator Scott Hammond. Photo by Christa Jennings
Julie L. McKenzie was killed during a club shooting in Kellyton on November 16, 1998. Photo submitted by Coosa County Sheriff’s Office
By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
Sheriff Michael Howell held a press conference last Thursday afternoon to shed light on an arrest being made in a 23-year-old cold case.
As reported last week, 45-year-old Bernard Russell of Kellyton was arrested in connection to the 1998 murder of 23-year-old Julia Lekecia McKenzie. She was killed by gunfire outside a club called Sammy’s Club in the Kellyton community on November 16, 1998.
Russell was charged with manslaughter, and his bond was set at $100,000. As of press time he remains in custody at the Coosa County Jail awaiting trial.
Howell also reported that another arrest is pending in connection with the case. However, the second suspect is currently incarcerated in a prison elsewhere, and no further details were released.
Howell was joined at the press conference by four members of McKenzie’s family whose names were not shared, with Howell recognizing them as “some of her family, daughters and sons, that were small children when this incident occurred.”
He was also joined by 40th Judicial Circuit District Attorney Joe Ficquette, Chief Deputy George Long and investigator Scott Hammond for the press conference.
After recounting early details of the incident resulting in the murder, Howell stated, “From the time of the murder until now, this case has continued to be investigated. Just like sheriffs before me, this has been a murder that has been at the forefront of our investigations.”
He credited former Sheriff Terry Wilson with establishing a Cold Case Investigations Unit to work on all cold cases. He said the McKenzie case has been “worked diligently” by his investigators with the assistance of investigators with the State Bureau of Investigations “for several years now.”
Findings were reported to District Attorney Ficquette for presentation to a Coosa County grand jury. Howell reported that on April 22 Russell and a co-defendant were indicted by the grand jury for manslaughter.
Russell was arrested last Wednesday, April 27, by county investigators. Howell reported during the press conference that the second suspect is awaiting extradition.
Howell then turned the lectern over to Ficquette for “a few words” to share during the conference.
“Justice delayed is not very good,” Ficquette said, “but Sheriff Howell and his good men and women have dedicated themselves to making sure justice comes swiftly.”
He expressed his gratitude to the Sheriff’s Office for its work. He added that they will prosecute this case “zealously” and “to hopefully a guilty verdict before a jury.”
“The evidence in this case that was presented to the grand jury was overwhelming,” Ficquette added. “We hope that, again, a jury of the defendant’s peers will return a guilty verdict.”
Howell stated that they felt a measure of justice had been achieved for McKenzie and her children following last week’s arrest.
“Words cannot express how much I appreciate the hard work and dedication that Coosa County Sheriff’s Office investigators and the State Bureau of Investigators have put forth to bringing some sort of closure for her family,” Howell said.
Howell acknowledged differences in cold cases compared to more current events, mentioning changes in relationships over time that may help resolve cold cases.
“One thing about cold cases is somebody may have been interviewed, but you need to go back and re-interview people,” he said. “Relationships change. People may be friends one minute, and five years later they’re no longer friends. So it’s always important to go back and re-interview people and see if there’s any more information that they may would provide at that time versus what was provided at the time of the murder.”
Howell said that he feels the arrest gives some hope to the community that they are still “diligently seeking justice” in these cases, even though they are deemed cold cases.
“People are still looking and investigating those crimes of murder,” he said.
While no specific details were given concerning any tips or information that led to enough evidence for the grand jury to give an indictment, Howell gave some credit to re-interviews and interviewing people again.
“This has continued to be a case that has been worked by many sheriffs,” he said. “This is a case that has been worked by several investigators, and it’s always great to have a fresh set of eyes to look at the evidence and the interviews, to see if anything else can be done in that case.”
When asked what led to a charge of manslaughter in this case as opposed to a different murder charge, Ficquette stated, “All I can say is the evidence was presented to a grand jury; they returned indictments on manslaughter.”
However, to clarify, a grand jury does not determine the charges against defendants. Rather, information is presented to a grand jury, which then determines if there is probable cause to issue an indictment against a suspect.
After hearing information presented for the prosecution side of the case, the grand jury then issues either a no bill or a true bill, also known as a yes bill. In this instance, after deliberating the presented information, the grand jury returned a true bill on indictments for Russell and the co-defendant, with the slated charges being for manslaughter, which was outside the scope of the grand jury’s duties.
An indictment must be returned by a grand jury before a felony case can proceed and go to trial.
According to the Code of Alabama, a person commits the crime of manslaughter if “he recklessly causes the death of another person, or he causes the death of another person under circumstances that would constitute murder under Section 13A-6-2; except that he causes the death due to a sudden heat of passion caused by provocation recognized by law, and before a reasonable time for the passion to cool and for reason to reassert itself.”
Manslaughter is a Class B felony, and with this case involving a firearm, it is punishable by 10-20 years imprisonment if convicted.
See “The Coosa County News” Facebook page for the full video of the press conference.