Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Manslaughter Conviction for Man who Gave Heroin to Friend who Overdosed

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today overturned an involuntary manslaughter conviction against a defendant whose friend died of a drug overdose after shooting heroin provided to him by the defendant.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Carrillo.

During the fall of 2013, the defendant and the victim were both students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  They also were both heroin users and they lived in the same neighborhood.  The defendant would periodically drive to New York to buy heroin.  On October 1, 2013, the defendant drove to New York and bought heroin that he and the victim used together when the defendant returned to Massachusetts that evening.  On October 3rd, the victim gave money to the defendant to purchase more heroin for him.  The defendant again drove to New York, bought heroin, and then drove to the victim’s apartment to shoot up.  The following afternoon, the victim’s father found him dead in his apartment.  There was a used needle near his body and three baggies of heroin had been ingested by the victim.  The medical examiner conducted an autopsy and concluded the defendant died as a result of an accidental heroin overdose.  A Hampshire County superior court jury found the defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter and distribution of heroin.  The defendant was sentenced to serve one year in county jail followed by a lengthy period of probation and he appealed.

Involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unlawful homicide unintentionally caused by wanton and reckless conduct, where the defendant disregarded the probable harmful consequences to the decedent.  Wanton and reckless conduct is described as behavior that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another person.  It is a higher burden than negligence.  When a person distributes heroin to a user, there is always a possibility the user will die of a drug overdose, but the SJC ruled that possibility is insufficient to prove an involuntary manslaughter case.  Instead, the Commonwealth must prove a high degree of likelihood of an overdose.  The Court noted that the prosecution did not provide evidence that using heroin generally brings with it a “high probability” of an overdose causing death (while acknowledging that heroin is an inherently dangerous drug).  An added factor was necessary for the Commonwealth to sustain its burden – for example: if the defendant knew the heroin was especially potent or laced with fentanyl; if the defendant knew the victim was vulnerable to an overdose because of his age or history of prior overdoses; or if the defendant failed to call for help after learning the victim had overdosed, the defendant’s conviction might have been upheld.  However, because none of these factors were present in this case, the SJC ruled the Commonwealth had not proved wanton or reckless conduct.

The Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for distribution of heroin.  The defendant had argued that he and the victim jointly possessed the heroin because he (the defendant) did not profit from the transaction and the heroin never belonged to him because the victim paid for it.  The Court rejected this argument and said in order for a joint possession defense to have applied to this case, both the defendant and the victim would have had to be present during the purchase of the drugs.

The defendant served his jail sentence and, according to media reports, now works at an addiction recovery center in New Hampshire.