Should drug users be treated like dealers? A fatal overdose raises that question
Jesse Carrillo knew the dealer well — he had bought thousands of bags of heroin from him and never overdosed. He and fellow University of Massachusetts Amherst student Eric Sinacori had injected the drug together the night of Oct. 1, 2013, and had been fine the next day.
So Carrillo felt secure buying more heroin from the same New York dealer for Sinacori and himself two nights later.
But the next day, he saw ambulance lights flashing outside Sinacori’s off-campus apartment. Sinacori, a 20-year-old third-year kinesiology major, was dead from a fatal overdose. He had ingested three of the nine bags Carrillo bought for him.
In 2017, Carrillo, a 28-year-old graduate student who had studied music theory, was convicted for drug distribution and involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to serve a year in county jail.
Now Carrillo is appealing his conviction to the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that Hampshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini should have instructed the jury to consider the lesser offense of possession since Carrillo had bought the drugs for his and Sinacori’s personal use, not for profit.
“When Jesse and another addict pooled their funds to purchase this heroin, it should not constitute manslaughter when the other addict overdosed,” said Jay Carney, who was Carrillo’s lawyer during the trial and is now handling his appeal. “We are asking the SJC to reassess the approaches taken in heroin cases given the opiate crisis in Massachusetts. . . . These addicts should not be treated the same as drug dealers selling heroin for profit.”
Prosecutors argued in their brief that, though Carrillo was intimately familiar with the heroin sold by his dealer, Sinacori had only used it once before. Leaving Sinacori alone with a drug product he was not as familiar with was “wanton and reckless,” prosecutors said, and Carrillo should have known it would likely lead to death.
Sinacori texted Carrillo on Oct. 3, 2013, that his “veins were screaming,” wrote Cynthia Von Flatern, a prosecutor for the Northwestern district attorney’s office.
“The victim was extremely anxious to receive his fix of heroin after the defendant’s long round-trip drive to the Bronx, and the defendant was well aware of the defendant’s desperation,” Von Flatern wrote. “Given the state the victim was in, it was foreseeable that the victim, a young college student, would inject himself with as many as the nine bags the defendant delivered.”
The court will hear arguments from both sides on Feb. 4. Carrillo’s case comes as political leaders across the country are pushing for more aggressive penalties for defendants who supply drugs that then result in fatal overdoses. The case is also complicated by Sinacori’s background: Before his death, he had acted as a drug informant for the school police after they caught him selling LSD and other drugs on campus.
“It could just as easily have been the deceased who was the one to get the drugs and could have been the one charged,” said Lisa Newman-Polk, a lawyer and social worker who is writing a brief in support of the defendant. “If Mr. Carrillo can be charged and convicted, quite honestly anyone who is addicted and shared drugs with a friend could be.”
In 2017, Governor Charlie Baker introduced a bill that would create a new manslaughter charge for anyone who provided an illegal drug product that resulted in death. Under the plan, which was met with skepticism by other political and community leaders, the defendant would face a mandatory minimum of five years for illegally distributing any drugs that result in a fatality. The Legislature sent the bill to a study committee, effectively scuttling it.
Still, some district attorneys who have pursued manslaughter charges in cases of drug overdoses have been supportive of Baker’s legislation, saying it has the potential to act as a deterrent.
“Hopefully it gives people pause,” Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe told the Cape Cod Times in February. “Although many of these people who distribute heroin really don’t care a whole lot about what’s right and wrong.”
Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, runs the Health in Justice Action Lab, which conducted a study that showed half the people prosecuted under such laws between 2000 and 2017 were typically friends, family, and significant others of the victim.
“The reality is about half the people who are prosecuted under these kinds of provisions look much more like the defendant in this case than the imaginary drug kingpin that the legislators and prosecutors often talk about,” said Beletsky, who is joining Newman-Polk in her brief in defense of Carrillo.
During Carrillo’s sentencing, Agostini acknowledged the defendant was not a drug dealer.
“I see this as one addict to another helping each other out in a perverted sense that one would view from a distance,” he said, according to court documents.
Carrillo has been released from jail and is now the admissions director at the Granite House Recovery Center in Manchester, N.H., Carney said.
In her brief, Von Flatern argued that the manslaughter conviction should stand, given that Carrillo texted Sinacori twice that night, got no reply, and never acted.
“There was no follow-up communication, and the jury could infer that the victim died soon after from the overdose,” she wrote.
Newman-Polk said that argument fails to take into account the medical establishment’s position that drug addiction is a chronic disease that severely affects the brain’s ability to control choices.
“When we’re talking about two severely ill people in the throes of addiction, as was the case here, it’s unreasonable to make one liable for the other’s death,” she said.
Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, said the most effective argument to make before the high court is that the charge of manslaughter and the subsequent punishment were too severe because the facts suggest Carrillo could not have known Sinacori would die.
“He’s culpable for distributing the drug. There is no question about that,” Morse said. “The question is whether convicting him of . . . manslaughter is fair, and I’m arguing it’s much too harsh. Not because he’s an addict but because . . . he didn’t have a culpable mental state vis a vis the death.”