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Massachusetts SJC to decide if providing heroin resulting in overdose can result in Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral argument in the case of Commonwealth v. Jesse Carrillo, where the defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on providing heroin to the deceased.  The defendant was a heroin addict himself and the evidence at trial indicated that he went to New York to buy heroin and that he would bring some heroin back to the victim.

At trial the defendant was convicted of both distribution of heroin and involuntary manslaughter.  The defendant claimed that the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of joint possession of heroin.  It was the defendant’s claim throughout the trial that he was a user and an addict but was not distributing heroin or making any profit from selling heroin.  The defendant testified in his own defense at the trial and outlined his heroin addiction.  The defendant also presented expert testimony.

Defense Expert

The defense called an expert that who was the medical director of substance abuse disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital.  Her treatment helps addicts avoid overdosages so that they can get treatment.  She testified that heroin users can use the drug safely for years without overdose.  She testified that heroin while dangerous it is more complex than that as some countries proscribe heroin for medical purposes.  She testified that an addict does not think about the risk and described the process of an addiction as an intense starvation.

Can a defendant be convicted of involuntary manslaughter solely as a result of sharing heroin

The defendant was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter; to prove a defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the Commonwealth must establish wanton or reckless conduct that is intentional by way of either an act or omission where there is a duty to act, which conduct involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.

To constitute wanton or reckless conduct, it must be apparent that there is a risk of grave danger and the defendant chose to run that risk rather than alter his conduct to avoid the act or omission that caused the harm.

The defense argued that there is no Massachusetts case that holds that mere provide gheroin to someone that overdoses can constitute wanton or reckless conduct.  The defendant argued that the legislature could make this a crime by statute as other states have done, but that it would be inconsistent with the case law for the court to create a per se criminal statute when it has not been created by the legislature.

The defense argued that cases that have upheld involuntary manslaughter convictions have all involved cases where there are aggravating or plus factors.

These cases involve the defendant personally injecting the victim; the defendant having knowledge that the heroin is particularly strong and or that the defendant would not be able to tolerate the particular dosage of heroin.  The defendant argued that none of these other factors were present in this case to justify the involuntary manslaughter conviction; accordingly, the defendant claims that the trial judge should have entered a required finding fo not guilty on this count.

Interestingly, the prosecution relied on text messages to show knowledge similar to the importance of text messages the SJC found in upholding the Michelle Carter involuntary manslaughter conviction.  The prosecution argued that the defendant’s text messages to the victim asking how he liked the heroin showed that he was aware that the dosage alone could use death.  Further, the defendant asked the victim how much Tropicana he drank showed that he was aware that the dosage could cause death.

This case involved a tragic situation of a student at UMass who was found dead from a heroin overdose by his parents who came to the school to visit him after they were unable to reach him.  I would expect the SJC to reverse the involuntary manslaughter conviction and vacate the distribution conviction as the defendant should have received a jury instruction on a lesser included offense.

For further reading on this case, Deborah Becker of WBUR provides a thoughtful account of the issues in the case. To learn more about current issues in Massachusetts criminal law you can follow us on Facebook.


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