Lonesome death of Coval Russell

Retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

For several weeks I have pondered the death of 92-year-old Coval Russell, who recently jumped off a bridge near Oroville onto the shoreline rocks of the Feather River. No one saw him jump, so no one knows if he died slowly from his injuries. His suicide deserves a closer look.

Russell’s death was described in the press as tragic, which it was, but not from a bleeding-heart standpoint. Primarily, his suicide marked one more failure of our court system. Russell enjoyed his 426 days in jail, where the county took care of his physical and medical needs, and the other prisoners showed deference to this most elderly of all state prisoners by assisting him to the head of the chow line, allowing him frequently to select which TV show they would watch, and calling him Pops. Then the judge decided he did not belong in jail for stabbing his landlord and sentenced him to probation, which turned out to be an indirect death sentence.

If memory serves, former Sheriff Mick Grey tried several years ago to make prisoners pay for their keep, billing them upon discharge. He knew that many could never pay, but some could. Since Russell had plenty of money, the county would have profited by charging him for all expenses and sentencing him to several years for his crime, thus allowing him to die with dignity in his beloved jail while at the same time reaping a bonanza of favorable publicity for innovative punishment. After all, Russell’s heart-tugging human-interest story received nationwide publicity.

On another level, Russell’s suicide marked the brave act of a man who realized life was no longer worth living because he suffered from painful physical ailments and had survived all family and friends except those in the county jail. Indeed, his jailhouse friends gave him respect, which subdued his physical pain and made life worthwhile. Still mentally sharp, he chose to avoid a rest home where he would be warehoused with others waiting to die. The tragic fact on display here was that he had little choice but to take a painful way out.

When I put my dog down some years ago, the veterinarian remarked it was a shame that suffering people could not put themselves down painlessly by injection the same way. I agreed. People get old, wear out, and break down. When life becomes intolerable, society should allow them the dignity of a painless passage. If only Russell could have had that option.

Finally, Russell’s case serves as a reminder that the United States has far too many old people, and they are living far too long. If nothing interrupts the snowballing growth of our senior group, it will bankrupt the country before long. Obstructionists like Attorney General John Ashcroft push misguided beliefs that only make the problem worse.