A former University of Massachusetts graduate student who bought heroin for a friend who later died from an overdose was wrongly convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.
“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 [necessary for involuntary manslaughter] under our law,” Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote in a 44-page ruling.
The unanimous decision reversed the 2017 conviction of Jesse Carrillo, who at 28 spent a year in jail for providing heroin to Eric Sinacori, a 20-year-old UMass Amherst student, in October 2013.
The Supreme Judicial Court decision comes as prosecutors and public health officials debate strategies to stem the opioid crisis. In the first six months of 2019, there were 938 confirmed and estimated opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts.
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. The Legislature sent the bill to a study committee, effectively scuttling it, but prosecutors have continued to pursue manslaughter charges in cases of overdoses, typically against drug dealers but in some instances against those who simply shared illicit drugs with victims.
In a statement, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said the “disheartening” ruling shows the high court does not believe heroin use carries a high probability of death.
“Every year, thousands upon thousands of Massachusetts residents suffer fatal and near-fatal overdoses after consuming this deadly drug,” Sullivan said. “The families who have lost loved ones to this brutal epidemic would surely disagree with the court’s analysis, as do we.”
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.”
Lisa Newman-Polk, a lawyer and social worker who wrote a brief in support of Carrillo, said the ruling should encourage prosecutors to consider the complexity of cases involving drug providers who are themselves struggling with addiction. In Carrillo’s case, he and Sinacori were friends who had injected heroin together and pooled their money to buy the drug that would kill Sinacori.
“The hope is that the district attorneys’ offices across the state will be more scrupulous when evaluating whether to bring charges,” Newman-Polk said. “These cases are very emotional. There is a lot of pressure on DAs’ offices to hold someone accountable. But sometimes we’re making a scapegoat out of people.”
J.W. Carney Jr., Carrillo’s lawyer, said Carrillo, who now works as a drug treatment counselor in New Hampshire, was elated by the court’s decision.
“This is such a timely and important case given the number of instances in which one drug addict shares heroin with someone who overdoses and dies,” Carney said. “We should not criminalize all actions by drug addicts.”
In the ruling, Gants wrote that there are circumstances when providing drugs could rise to the level of reckless and wanton conduct, such as knowingly providing heroin that is especially potent or laced with fentanyl.
In Carrillo’s case, Gants said prosecutors failed to show Carrillo knew the drug was unusually dangerous, knew Sinacori was particularly vulnerable to an overdose, or knew that Sinacori had overdosed and failed to call for help.
“The Commonwealth must introduce evidence showing that . . . the defendant knew or should have known that his or her conduct created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm, such as an overdose or death,” Gants said.
The SJC upheld Carrillo’s drug distribution conviction.
At his trial, Carrillo testified that he and Sinacori had pooled their money to buy heroin from a dealer Carrillo knew in New York City. They had injected heroin from the same dealer together on Oct. 1, 2013, without negative consequences, Carrillo testified.
Two days later, Carrillo drove to New York to buy more drugs and gave nine bags to Sinacori, who injected three of them alone. On Oct. 4, his father found him in his apartment.
Newman-Polk noted that Sinacori had been investigated for selling drugs in 2012.
“We are talking about two young men who were both severely addicted and on another day it could have been Mr. Carrillo who had died and Mr. Sinacori who provided the drugs,” she said.
Francesca Sinacori, the victim’s mother, said she had no idea that her son was using heroin or dealing drugs and would have gotten him immediate help.
“I never want another parent to go through what Eric’s father and I have gone through,” she told the Globe in 2015.