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Acquitted man says accusation follows him

February 03, 1997

By MARLO BARNHART

Staff Writer

James Allen Russell knows what it's like to feel the stares of people who wonder if he really is innocent of murder or a killer who "got off."

Russell was acquitted last August of the 1989 murder and kidnapping of Jeffrey Fiddler. Although he's free after nearly a year spent in jail awaiting trial on a murder charge, Russell said he still feels very much like a prisoner.

"I had 11-1/2 months of pain and suffering," Russell said. "I lost everything I had because of this."

Russell said his problems began when he was approached by two Hagerstown City Police officers at his job back in 1995. He said he was thrown in the mud, handcuffed and arrested in front of his co-workers.

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"They humiliated me ... made me look like a total criminal," Russell said. "I had nothing to do with that boy's death."

Russell, who said he can barely read and write, said people had to explain to him some of the crimes with which he was charged in connection with Jeffrey Fiddler's stabbing death.

That part of the nightmare came to an end on Aug. 22, Russell said.

On that day, Washington County Circuit Judge Daniel Moylan ruled that he found "insufficient evidence of criminal agency." With those words, James Russell was free.

Moylan said the state had made a strong case that Fiddler was kidnapped, killed and taken to Pennsylvania where his body was dumped.

Moylan acknowledged the "richness of detail" in the testimony of Russell's friend Kathy Short, who said Russell told her about the events the night of Feb. 26-27, 1989.

"But if I make the leap that he knew all that because he was there, I must be shown more than that," Moylan said that day. "There must be some conduct of the defendant."

The judge said he'd have to be shown that Russell participated, or that he helped make the crime succeed.

"I wasn't there that night," Russell said. "I was out with my girlfriend."

Russell, now 30, faced charges of murder and kidnapping in connection with the death of Fiddler. He was the third of four defendants to stand trial in the case.

Free for just over five months, Russell said he has found a job, thanks to his attorney, Lawrence Finegan, and his investigator.

"I'm still living on the streets though, because I can't get anyone to rent me an apartment," Russell said. "People look at me and turn me away."

Russell's fight for his freedom left him with a debt of $80,000. But, he said, it was worth it.

"From the day I got out, I felt God was giving me a second chance," Russell said.

He says he has made a lot of changes in his lifestyle and the people he hangs out with.

"I don't want revenge for what happened to me ... I hold no grudges," Russell said. What he would like is an apology from the state, but realizes he probably won't get it.

"I want Hagerstown to know I'm not a bad person," Russell said. "I've done stupid things but I was never in trouble before this."

He realizes his life might be a little less complicated if he pulled up stakes and moved, but Russell said that's not an option. "I'm staying," he said. "I won't let them make me leave."

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