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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Upholds Heroin Dealer’s Conviction for Death of User

During the trial of an accused drug dealer whose sale of heroin led to the user’s death, a jury was properly instructed that the dealer could be held responsible if the drugs he sold caused the user’s death by overdose, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rejected Mark Price’s argument that a Cuyahoga County trial court confused the jury with instructions that allowed him to be convicted of corruption of another with drugs. Price maintained the court incorrectly allowed the jury to consider a lower standard — that the drug sale was a “substantial or contributing factor” in the 2016 overdose death of James Dawson — to gain a conviction.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that although the instructions given to the jury were not specifically those suggested by Price’s defense attorney, the court gave the jury the essence of the instructions that he had suggested and sufficiently made clear the required standard of proof to convict Price. She stated the trial court did not lead the jurors to believe they could convict Price if his actions were only a substantial or contributing factor to Dawson’s death.

The decision affirmed an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision, which affirmed Price’s conviction but directed the trial court to revisit its 16-year prison sentence imposed on Price

Man Found Dead with Multiple Drugs in System
In August 2016, Dawson contacted his neighbor, Tierra Fort, in an attempt to find someone to sell him heroin. Fort contacted Price, known by his street name “Bam,” and arranged for Price to sell Dawson $100 worth of heroin. Dawson picked up the drugs from Fort at her apartment, and he gave her about $20 worth of them.

The next day Dawson was found dead in his apartment of an apparent overdose. Dawson had been prescribed two anti-depressant medications. Detectives found some of the prescription anti-depressant pills near Dawson as well as a “pinkish-powder residue” and a snorting straw made from part of a pen on his kitchen table.

By searching Dawson’s cell phone, detectives discovered Fort’s role in the heroin purchase and  were able to determine that “Bam" was Price. Police arranged for Fort to make a drug purchase from Price and arrested him.

Tests of the pinkish powder indicated it was heroin mixed with fentanyl, a narcotic medication that can slow down breathing and lead to death. A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Price on 22 counts related to Dawson’s death, including involuntary manslaughter, corrupting another with drugs, and drug trafficking.

Cause of Death Disputed
The county’s chief deputy medical examiner performed an autopsy on Dawson and testified at Price’s trial that he initially thought heart and lung disease could be the cause of Dawson’s death. After identifying the high level of fentanyl in Dawson’s system along with the two antidepressants, the medical examiner concluded the death was from “acute intoxication” from the medications, with fentanyl being the “primary cause.”

Robert J. Belloto, an expert in pharmacology and toxicology, testified on behalf of the defense that Dawson had lived up to five hours after ingesting the heroin-fentanyl mix and that it was likely that Dawson died from a heart disorder.

After presenting Price’s defense, Price’s attorney requested jury instructions based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Burrage v. United States decision. Price argued that under Burrage, if the drugs Price sold were not an “independently sufficient” cause of Dawson’s death, Price could not be criminally liable unless the death would not have occurred but for the victim taking the drugs Price provided.  The Court explained in Burrage that “independently sufficient” causation—as distinguished from “but-for” causation—occurs where multiple sufficient causes independently, but concurrently, produce a result. The decision gave an example of two separate defendants fatally stabbing and shooting a victim at the same time.

The trial court refused and instead provided jurors a six-part instruction. The jury acquitted Price of involuntary manslaughter but found him guilty of the remaining charges. The trial court sentenced Price to eight years in prison for separate charges of corrupting Dawson with heroin and fentanyl, and ordered the sentences to be served consecutively. The sentences for all other charges were ordered to run concurrently, giving Price a total of 16 years in prison.

Price appealed his conviction and sentence to the Eighth District. The Eighth District affirmed the conviction, but found his sentence was miscalculated.

Price appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Eighth District noted that its decision was in conflict with a Fifth District Court of Appeals on the standard needed to convict for R.C. 2925.02, which is the corrupting of another with drugs. The Court agreed to hear Price’s appeal and address the conflict.

Court Finds No Conflict, Explains Instructions
Based on further review, the Supreme Court determined the two appellate court decisions were not in conflict and ruled that part of the case was improvidently certified. The opinion focused on Price’s contention that a jury must be instructed that a drug distributor is only responsible for causing a user’s death when the evidence proves the drug ingested was “an independent cause of death” and that “but for” the ingestion, the user would not have died.

Price claimed that the court’s instructions led the jury to believe he could be convicted if the drugs that found their way to Dawson were only a substantial and contributing factor of his death. Price argued that under Burrage, the prosecution had to prove more than just the sale being a substantial or contributing factor.

Justice Kennedy explained that Burrage pertained to a federal statute that enhanced the penalty for a drug distributor whose sale caused the death of the user. She wrote the decision is not binding precedent that Ohio courts need to follow when considering state law, but it is helpful to the Court in applying the law.

The opinion noted that the trial court’s six-part instruction contained provisions that gave the essential parts of the instruction Price requested. The trial court first defined “cause” as an “act or failure to act which in a natural and continuous sequence produces the death of a person and without which it would not have occurred.” In the final part, the court defined “causation” as “the cause of a result if it is an event, but for which the result in question would not have occurred.”

The Court wrote that the provisions taken together indicate that Price could be convicted of the charge only if the state proved the “but for” requirement: That if Price had not sold the drugs, Dawson would not have died. 

Another part of the instruction explained that other causes are not a defense. The jury instructions stated there “may be one or more causes of an event, however, if a Defendant’s act, or failure to act was one cause, then the existence of another cause is not a defense.”

Price claimed that this “other causes” instruction allowed the jury to convict him without proving that his sale of drugs alone caused Dawson’s death. The Court disagreed. The opinion stated the “other causes” instruction read together with the rest of the instructions explained  the concept of “independently sufficient causes.” The Court noted the instruction still required that Price’s conduct had to cause Dawson’s death.

The Court explained that in Burrage, the Supreme Court defined a “contributing factor” as one that, standing alone, is not sufficient to bring about harm. In Price’s case, the trial court instructed the jury that it had to find Price’s actions did lead to Dawson’s death. The Court decided that the trial court did not allow the jury to base a guilty verdict on a finding that the drugs Price provided to Dawson “merely contributed to his death.”

The Court also pointed out that at the time the jury instructions were provided, Price did not object  to them. The Court concluded that the essence of what Price wanted in the jury instructions was presented and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by wording it differently than Price had sought.

2019-0729 and 2019-0822. State v. Price, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-4926.

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