Blood Oath

Deborah Baxtrom July/August 1999
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A few minutes earlier a 32-year-old auto mechanic named Keith Cook left a birthday party "drunk and angry." He tore off in his 1972 pickup, which soon approached the same road where the Russell accident had occurred. Cook's pickup became airborne as it barreled over a hill and, though he hit the brakes, smashed into Russell's car, which slammed into Jadine Russell, her daughter, and the two officers. All were hurt, but Jadine suffered the most severe injury when the car pinned her against a fence and ruptured her spleen, causing massive internal bleeding and leaking blood into her abdomen. She was helicoptered to County-USC Medical Center; en route she repeatedly cried, "No blood! No blood!" to rescue workers and (later) to emergency room personnel.

As a faithful Jehovah's Witness, Russell believed that the "consumption" of blood is biblically prohibited. By the time she reached the operating room, she had lost more than half of her blood, but when bags of O-negative were hung beside her bed, she used what little energy she had to grab at the bags, trying to pull them down. The attending physician, William Dougherty, warned her that without the blood she could die. She said that she would rather die than take the blood--which is exactly what happened.

Though more than 1,000 people attended the popular woman's funeral, her tragic death touched millions more. During the 10-day vehicular murder trial that took place in December, the case of People v. Cook attracted national media attention, prompted emotionally charged reactions from the public, and ignited passionate debates on radio talk shows throughout southern California. What sparked the controversy was the novel defense employed by Cook and his attorneys--that Russell was responsible for her own death because she chose to abide by her religious beliefs and spurned a blood transfusion. Cook, they argued, should not be held responsible for the consequences of Jadine Russell's unconventional dogma.

"This case is about a choice made by Jadine Russell," argued defense attorney Charles Unger. "She held the keys in her hand, but because of her religious convictions, she made a decision. The consequences of that decision should not be put on Keith Cook."

The prosecution, however, maintained that Cook was solely to blame for Russell's death because he forced her to make that difficult choice. "He set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the death of Jadine Russell," said deputy district attorney Larry Larson. "She was a healthy, happy 55-year-old woman. Until Mr. Cook came along."

The Russell family agreed. In their view the defense was using the family's religion against them.

"I don't know why they're going to raise the blood issue," her husband, James Russell, had stated. "He killed her. Now they're trying to give the blame to someone else."

Cook's attorneys "raised the blood issue" because it could mean the difference between a second-degree murder conviction for Cook or his being convicted only on the lesser counts of driving under the influence and causing an accident with injuries. The first carries a sentence of 15 years to life, the second as little as four years.

"The key issue here is choice and responsibility," Unger argued. "People are free to have their religious choice and freedom, but when it has consequences for someone else, that is where the line is drawn."

Many people agreed. Even a medical expert called to testify for the prosecution admitted that Russell would have stood a 70 to 80 percent chance of surviving (this was later called a "conservative" estimate by the defense) had she abandoned her beliefs and accepted a transfusion. Had she done so and lived, Cook would not have faced murder charges. The jury also had the option of taking a middle course. It could find Cook guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter, which carries a lesser sentence.

Cook's attorneys admitted that the defendant was responsible for the accident. He was, they said, guilty of the lesser charges of driving under the influence and causing an accident with injuries. For Cook to be convicted of murder, the prosecution had to prove gross negligence and malice on Cook's part. In its attempt to dispute the prosecution's contention that Cook's actions were grossly negligent, the defense team argued that he was not driving at 71 to 73 mph, as the prosecution asserted, and that witnesses were not consistent in their testimony regarding the speed the truck was going that night.

According to the prosecution, proving its case was not contingent only upon the speed Cook was driving. The night of the accident his blood-alcohol level was recorded at 0.17 percent, twice the legal limit, which meant Cook must have consumed more than 13 beers in a little more than five hours.

"He realized the dangers of drinking, but he didn't really care," said Larson in comments to the jury. "This is how we show the gross negligence and the malice that led to murder." However, in Unger's cross-examination of CHP officer Robert Diaz, who administered five field sobriety tests following the accident (Cook failed four because he did not follow instructions), Diaz admitted that Cook's balance and coordination were not unusually impaired following the accident, and that he was suffering from a head injury. Unger insisted that Cook was not as drunk nor driving as fast as the prosecution maintained, and therefore his actions could not be deemed grossly negligent.

Passions ran high in the courtroom, fueling public debate. James Russell closed his eyes when prosecuting attorney Larson painted a mental picture of Jadine's car crashing into her as she stood by the side of the road. And photos and video footage of an anguished and tearful Jennifer Russell were ubiquitous in the Los Angeles media during the course of the trial. Cook, a divorced father of two, received a visit from his young children during his stay in the courthouse lockup, and his fianc
Article Author: Deborah Baxtrom