WEST CHESTER — A Common Pleas Court judge Monday turned down the request by a former West Chester University student to reduce his prison term for attacking his one-time roommate, saying the youth had already been given a significant break in the sentence.
Senior Judge Thomas Gavin said that he had taken into account the arguments for and against Zackery Russell, 20, of Gilbertsville, and determined that a sentence of 3-23 months in Chester County Prison — with an opportunity for work release and a delayed reporting date — was appropriate.
Russell’s attorney had argued that Gavin should have sentenced his client to a single month in prison or to probation, and did not specify why he chose a lengthier term, as he is required to do.
On Monday, Gavin characterized the attack Russell waged on his freshman year roommate, Michael Giovinco, as similar to being beaten while sitting in one’s living room, and pointedly said that Giovinco had acted appropriately to the unprovoked attack.
“This was like his home away from home,” Gavin said.
He also noted that Russell had exacerbated the situation by fighting with police officers who attempted to take him into custody.
The decision not to lessen the amount of time Russell, a former standout hockey player at Pope John Paul II High School in Upper Providence, Montgomery County, drew little outward reaction from him, but elicted an angry response from Russell’s parents, who had accompanied him to the hearing.
His father, Chris Russell, shook his head vehemently at Gavin’s description of what had occurred between his son and Giovinco, glared menacingly at Giovinco’s parents, who were seated in the courtroom, and then slammed open the door to Gavin’s courtroom on his way out at the conclusion of the proceeding. He could be heard cursing angrily in the hallway outside, and also berated a reporter covering the hearing, demanding to know what had promoted his appearance at the proceeding.
Inside Gavin’s court, Russell’s mother, Donna Russell, pointed animatedly to copied photographs of her son after his arrest, after three West Chester campus police officers had fought with him, while Gavin described the attack on Giovinco.
Russell’s attorney, John Griffin of Philadelphia, indicated that he may appeal Gavin’s decision on the sentence to the state Superior Court. Gavin said that if he did, he would allow Russell to remain on bail pending his appeal. If not, he is scheduled to begin his sentence following the completion of his spring semester at Montgomery County Community College.
Russell, who blamed his actions on severe problems with alcohol and drugs, did not speak during the hearing.
The prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney Michelle Frei, opposed the motion to reduce the sentence, saying that Gavin had followed correct and legal proceedings in determining the jail time Russell should serve.
Russell pleaded guilty to simple assault and related charges on Feb. 1.
The assault occurred when Russell and Giovinco were freshmen at WCU. The two shared a dorm room in the fall of 2011, but Giovinco, who had enrolled in the college to study pharmaceutical marketing, became concerned about Russell’s escalating use of alcohol and drugs. After complaining about Russell’s behavior to school officials, Giovinco was given a new roommate and obtained an order forbidding Russell from having any contact with him.
But on the evening of April 16, 2012, at about 11:30 p.m., when Giovinco was watching a Phillies game in the sixth floor television room of Brandywine Hall, according to an arrest affidavit filed by WCU police, Russell entered the room, saw Giovinco, and threw a plastic drink bottle at him.
Giovinco, who was talking on his cell phone with his father, left the room, walking to the resident assistant’s room to report Russell’s behavior. Russell, however, followed him, and threw a punch at his head that knocked Giovinco to the floor. Russell began punching Giovinco in the head and chest until he was pulled away.
Frei told Gavin at the sentencing that Russell had punched Giovinco so hard that he broke his hand on his victim’s face.
When police approached Russell later outside the dorm, they could tell he was heavily intoxicated, the affidavit stated. Frei said it took three police officers to take him into custody, but that he continued to act out even as the police took him to Chester County Hospital to treat his broken hand.
While there he resisted efforts to calm down and, according to police, asked one of the officers, “Why am I being arrested? I won the fight.”
Information from the Daily Local News, www.dailylocal.com