SJC weighs appropriate penalty for supplying heroin

Heroin killed Eric Sinacori, a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst student, who was found dead by his parents when they visited from New Jersey in October 2013. A medical examiner concluded the cause of death was “acute heroin intoxication.”

Jesse Carrillo, a graduate student at the school who had fallen into his own heroin addiction, had given Sinacori the drugs that killed him.

Now it is up to the Supreme Judicial Court to decide whether to uphold Carrillo’s May 2017 conviction of involuntary manslaughter based on wanton or reckless conduct, and drug distribution.

Gov. Charlie Baker has supported changing the statutes to clarify that dealing a dangerous drug to someone who is then killed by that drug is manslaughter. But this case is different.

Carrillo’s attorney, J.W. Carney, argued that Carrillo and Sinacori, who were both addicted to heroin, entered into a joint venture to procure heroin from Carrillo’s regular dealer in the Bronx. Carrillo made the trip and gave Sinacori the drugs the night before he was found dead of an overdose in his apartment.

“Jesse Carrillo was not a drug dealer,” Carney said in oral arguments Monday that were covered by WBUR. “He didn’t profit from getting Eric the heroin, he didn’t benefit in any way. He just pooled the money, went to the dealer, purchased it, and gave Eric exactly what he had paid for.”

The case stems from one death among the thousands of people killed by overdoses in recent years, a grim toll caused by runaway addiction to heroin and opioids like fentanyl. Officials have generally tried to steer blame towards the bigger suppliers – crime syndicates that flood neighborhoods with cheap, profitable poison, and pharmaceutical companies whose legal medical painkillers can contribute to the downward spiral of addiction.

Carrillo is not the first Massachusetts defendant to be convicted of manslaughter for contributing to someone’s overdose, but Carney argues his client is distinguished from those other defendants because of the lack of aggravating factors. There is no evidence, he argued, that Carrillo injected the heroin into Sinacori, supplied him with other drugs, or knew of any prior overdoses. All he did was provide Sinacori the heroin.

Some of the justices appeared skeptical of the prosecution’s argument or concerned about the implications of upholding the conviction.

“He’s bought this heroin multiple times, used it himself, he’s not died on any of these occasions,” said Justice Scott Kafker. “Isn’t that about as safe a drug delivery as we’re going to hear about when you’re dealing with heroin?”

Arguing to uphold the conviction, Northwestern Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Von Flatern contended that Carrillo had supplied heroin to someone showing severe addiction.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants questioned the implications of the prosecution’s argument on the state’s program for involuntarily committing individuals whose drug abuse is likely to result in serious harm.

“I’m just wondering about whether the DAs and the attorney general [are] prepared to accept the logical consequence of your position,” Gants said, “which, as far as I can tell, is that every person with a substance use disorder may be civilly committed.”

In an amicus brief, Attorney General Maura Healey argued against Carney, saying that requiring aggravating factors beyond the fact that the defendant gave the victim heroin would “be inconsistent with well-established, sensible principles of Massachusetts manslaughter law.”

Dating back several years, the Boston Globe has covered the twisted and heart-wrenching story of Sinacori’s life and death, including his role as a confidential informant for campus police.

The legal briefs filed with the court bear the hallmarks of a tragic story about drug addiction – deception, an all-consuming drive to obtain drugs, and an aborted attempt to get clean of them.

Carrillo had been introduced to heroin only about nine months before Sinacori’s death, but it quickly took ahold, as Carrillo used 3,000 to 4,000 bags of heroin in that time-period. He described his addiction as a “terror,” according to his lawyer’s brief.

Over the next four or five months, the state’s highest court will determine whether supplying Sinacori with heroin is enough to warrant Carrillo’s manslaughter conviction.



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