Supreme Judicial Court overturns manslaughter charge in UMASS overdose case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has overturned a manslaughter conviction that was handed down to a New Hampshire defendant following incidents where he, on two occasions, supplies a UMASS Amherst undergraduate student with heroin, which resulted in his eventual overdose six years ago, in October of 2013.

In 2017 Jesse Carrillo, the defendant who was a graduate student at UMASS at the time, was found guilty of heroin distribution and involuntary manslaughter, as the lower court argued that supplying the heroin that eventually resulted in the death of 20-year-old Eric Sinacori should result in the supplier shouldering responsibility for the young man’s death.

But the SJC disagreed with that opinion following Carrillo’s appeal of the sentence.

“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 under our law,” wrote Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. “The commonwealth must introduce evidence showing that, considering the totality of the particular circumstances, 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.”

The Supreme Judicial Court stance essentially boils down to the prosecution failing to provide substantial evidence that Carrillo had any reasonable evidence to suggest his supplying of the heroin would lead to an inordinately high chance of Sinacori’s death – not any more likely than the risk of death that comes with consumption of heroin in any other situation, that is.

“Here, no evidence was presented during the commonwealth’s case-in-chief that would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the inherent possibility of substantial harm arising from the use of heroin — which is present in any distribution of heroin — had been increased by specific circumstances to create a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm,” the SJC opinion reads.

The court lists specific examples, such as the prosecution not demonstrating that the defendant knew the heroin was “unusually potent” or “laced with fentanyl” or that the defendant knew Sinacori was “particularly vulnerable to an overdose because of his age, use of other drugs, or prior overdoses” or that the defendant should have known the victim overdosed and didn’t seek help.

The court did uphold the more serious charge of heroin distribution rather than simple possession, even though the defendant did not profit from the sale of the heroin to the victim. He did, however, take two separate trips to purchase the heroin from a New York City dealer, which he then shared with the victim, leading to his overdose and death.

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