A California family is reeling after their son's killer was released from prison last week — and, they said, intends to settle back into their neighborhood — under a controversial new state law that prohibits minors from being charged as adults, regardless of the severity of their crime.
Jae Williams, now 29, was sentenced to 26 years behind bars in 2014 for the stabbing death of Santa Teresa High School classmate Michael Russell, 15.
Williams, then 15, and coconspirator Randy Thompson, 16, lured Russell to his own backyard under the guise of smoking marijuana in 2009 and took turns stabbing him to death, per court documents.
Local media dubbed the tragedy a "thrill killing" because Williams and Thompson wanted to experience what it felt like to kill someone, per NBC Bay Area. Both teens were initially convicted on murder charges.
The two teens had journals where they drew doodles and wrote descriptions of horrific acts, The Mercury News reported, and meticulously planned the Nov. 10, 2009 killing.
"One chilling aspect of this case is that Jae and Randy selectively ‘befriended’ Mikey for the exclusive purpose of murdering him — it was a long-term plan to gain Mikey's trust so they could get close to him," Scotty Storey, the Russell family's attorney, told Fox News Digital. "The unimaginable terror Mikey must have felt being killed by his ‘friends’…"
But the State Senate passed Senate Bill 1391 in 2018, prohibiting anyone under the age of 16 from being charged as an adult.
"When it came in as a proposition, we absolutely protested," Russell's aunt, Cathy Russell, told Fox News Digital. "We wrote letters. We had the community involved. We did everything we could possibly do, but it was ultimately passed."
Michael Russell, pictured, was stabbed to death by Jae Williams and Ralph Thompson on Nov. 10, 2009. His aunt told Fox News Digital the high school sophomore was "a sweet, quiet boy with a smile who would light up a room" who was "trusting and caring
Thompson had already been tried, retried and convicted of premeditated murder in 2016 and sentenced to 26 years to life behind bars — because he was 16 years old when he and Williams stabbed Russell to death, he would not have been eligible for early release under the new law.
But the conviction of Williams, who was 15 during the killing, was still in the balance. Defense attorney Lewis Romero had successfully appealed his 26-year prison conviction on the grounds that police violated his constitutional rights at the time of his arrest, per 6th Appellate Court documents.
Allegedly, Romero told Fox News Digital, Williams was held in an interrogation room for 18 hours and deprived of sleep and food before police elicited his confession.
Because Williams was 15, not 16, when he carried out the stabbing and his conviction was "not yet resolved in the criminal system," Storey explained, the new California law retroactively applied to him.
Russell's eighth grade teacher, who asked not to be named in fear of retribution after Williams' Monday release, remembered the boy as "mature-quiet," recalling that she would ask if he needed any help at Santa Teresa's homework center and he would r
Williams' case was transferred to juvenile court after the passage of the law.
Initially, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge delayed his scheduled release in 2021, per court records.
But on Monday, Nov. 20, after 13 years behind bars with stints in notorious facilities like San Quentin, Soledad and Solano State Prisons, Romero said, Williams was ordered released by the same court, per The Mercury News.
"Yesterday, we took the day and we all spent it separately because we couldn't be strong for each other," the victim's aunt tearfully told Fox News Digital. "We are literally broken again."
"You can't take a person who… ultimately wanted to see what it felt like to kill somebody… you can't take a person like that, put him in jail for 13 years… and think he'll be different," the bereaved aunt continued. "He's never shown any remorse. He's a heartless human being. I don't even like to call him a human being. He's a heartless monster."
Cathy Russell, who said she lives in the same neighborhood as her nephew's just-released killer, told Fox News Digital that "the community isn't safe with [Williams] in it — it's just a matter of time."
Jae Williams is pictured in a 2018 mugshot. He was released on Nov. 20. (California Department of Corrections)
Storey told Fox News Digital that the family is "terrified" in light of the court's Monday decision and has since relocated and are attempting to "live anonymously because of the fear they have."
Other members of the community shared the family's fear — a since-removed post sharing Williams' face on the community's NextDoor app page had been engaged with dozens of times before it was removed last week.
Among those who shared the post was Russell's former eighth grade teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions upon Williams' release.
"I guess I understand the rationale behind it in general," the teacher, who still works in the district, said of the new California law. "But for the safety of others, I think there's a line. If it's a violent crime, if there's a death involved, if there was proclaimed ‘I’m going to do this and it was fun'… I think there's cases where [age] shouldn't matter and the [law] shouldn't be applied.
Michael Russell is pictured in an undated childhood photo provided by his family. Cathy Russell, the boy's aunt, bemoaned that her nephew was a "poor, naïve boy" who befriended Williams and Thompson because of his "trusting" nature. (Provided to Fox
"I know you can act a certain way and pretend in jail until you come back and be yourself," the teacher, who also teaches adult classes in an area jail facility, told Fox News Digital. "To be completely honest with you, I'm slightly scared only because I've been so vocal against him over the past 14 years. I'm not afraid [Williams will] come after me, but it's a stupid fear in the back of my head. And I'm worried about vulnerable people he may ‘befriend.'"
Williams' attorney argued in court that the fact that his client earned a high school diploma, read 400 books while incarcerated and had no record of violence while locked up showed that he needed no further rehabilitation before his release.
Citing findings that adolescents haven't reached full mental and emotional development at the age of 16, Romero said he was pleased with his client's outcome and the passage of SB 1391 and that he hoped the law would "work for the children of California."
"[Just because] society fails kids from time to time doesn't mean we give up on them," Romero told Fox News Digital. "That's why these policies were put into place. Parents are busy sometimes. We don't know what the child faces in the home. We can't throw away hope on children when all signs say they're learning and they're looking to us to learn from.
"Science doesn't lie to us," Romero continued. "A little girl who's 5 years old and steals a candy from a store could become the doctor or neurosurgeon of tomorrow."
But Storey told Fox News Digital that "stealing a candy bar versus taking a life are magnitudes of difference."
"I'm taken aback at Mr. Williams' attorney would… liken this to a 5-year-old stealing a candy bar — I think that's a cavalier approach to addressing someone who has been murdered," Storey told Fox News Digital.
"I understand there are arguments that the adolescent brain hasn't developed," Storey continued. "There's something seriously wrong with that individual, and I don't think it has anything to do with the development of his brain at that time. By reaching the age of 25, he wouldn't be a different person and just say, ‘Oh, that was a silly idea.’"