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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Heroin Dealer's Conviction For Death of User

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Mark Price sold heroin to James Dawson. Mr. Dawson died the following day as a result of a fentanyl overdose. Detectives discovered Mr. Price’s role in the sale of the drugs. The Cuyahoga County prosecutors office indicted Mr. Price for the death.

Mr. Dawson was also taking anti-depression medication.

The issue was the cause of death. The county’s chief deputy medical examiner performed an autopsy on Mr. 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 who our law firm regularly works with, 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.

The jury acquitted Mr. Price of involuntary manslaughter but found him guilty of the remaining charges. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

In a unanimous decision, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected Mr. Price’s argument that the trial court confused the jury with its jury instructions on “causation”. The Ohio Supreme Court concluded that Mr. 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.

The issue was this: 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.”.

The Court explained that the trial court instructed the jury that it had to find Mr. 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.”

---State v. Price (10/20/20) – Ohio S.Ct.