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Massachusetts SJC overturns involuntary manslaughter conviction in heroin overdose case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed an involuntary manslaughter conviction in the case of Commonwealth v. Carrillo based on the defendant allegedly causing the victim to overdose on heroin.  Massachusetts’s highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), vacatedUMass Amherst grad student Jesse Carrillo’s involuntary manslaughter conviction, who, in October 2013, Jesse Carrillo was charged in the heroin overdose death of fellow UMass Amherst student, Eric Sinacori.

In May 2017, a Hampshire Superior Court jury delivered its guilty verdict against Carrillo on counts of distributing heroin and involuntary manslaughter, nearly four years after Sinacori died at his off-campus apartment.  In October 2013, Carrillo was getting his master’s degree at UMass Amherst when he purchased heroin from a New York dealer for himself and Sinacori.  Two nights later, Carrillo drove to the Bronx again and purchased heroin from the same dealer for himself and Sinacori, who was found dead the next day of an overdose.

In June 2017, at Carrillo’s sentencing hearing, Hampshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini called the case “very difficult” before handing down a jail sentence of 2½ years and five years on probation.  Judge Agostini ordered Carrillo to spend one year behind bars, with the rest of the sentence suspended.


The SJC’s unanimous decision reversedJesse Carrillo’s 2017 conviction, who, at 28 years old, spent only one year in jail for providing heroin to Sinacori.  The SJC, which affirmed Carrillo’s conviction on the count of distributing heroin, sent the case back to the Hampshire Superior Court to record a not guilty finding on the count of involuntary manslaughter.

In the Court’s 44-page opinion, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote “We conclude that the mere possibility that the transfer of heroin will result in an overdose does not suffice to meet the standard of wanton or reckless conduct under our law.”  “Here, no evidence was presented during the Commonwealth’s case-in-chief that would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the inherent possibility of substantial harm arising from the use of heroin — which is present in any distribution of heroin — had been increased by specific circumstances to create a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm.”

Chief Justice Gants noted that the heroin was not laced with fentanyl, and that Carrillo had purchased the same heroin for his own use.  “The issue we confront, then, is whether evidence of heroin distribution alone is sufficient to support a conviction of involuntary manslaughter where the heroin caused a tragic death.”

In response to the SJC’s opinion, Northwestern DA David E. Sullivan stated, “It is disheartening that the Supreme Judicial Court does not believe heroin use carries a high probability of substantial harm or death.”  “Every year, thousands upon thousands of Massachusetts residents suffer fatal and near-fatal overdoses after consuming this deadly drug. The families who have lost loved ones to this brutal epidemic would surely disagree with the Court’s analysis, as do we.”


The SJC’s decision comes as prosecutors and public health officials debate strategies to stem the opioid crisis.  In 2019 alone, there have been 938 confirmed and estimated opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts.


Michael O’Keefe, District Attorney for the Cape and Islands, called the ruling a “dangerous retreat” that would make it harder to bring forward manslaughter charges in cases of fatal overdoses.  “You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that heroin injected into a human body is inherently dangerous,” O’Keefe said. “It’s just a total retreat and I can’t understand why we would want to be doing that today with the amount of deaths that are all around us.”

The decision of the SJC was a well reasoned decision as the emotion of holding someone responsible could not overcome the legal principles about what constitutes involuntary manslaughter.  You can read the SJC decision in Carrillo decision here.

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