Who is responsible for a drug overdose death?
Dubuque, Iowa, the corn capital of the U.S., has a serious drug overdose problem. A local television station reported that through the first eight months of 2016, Dubuque had 23 heroin overdoses and nine overdose deaths. By November 2016, another television station reported that the drug overdose number had climbed to 26 and local drug users had started using a dangerous drug called “carfentanil,” an elephant tranquilizer that is 5,000 times stronger than heroin.
It is an understatement to say a city has a “drug problem” when its drug abusers routinely use a mixture of heroin and fentanyl—a synthetic form of heroin that makes regular heroin more potent—and turn to carfentanil when regular heroin or the heroin/fentanyl combination are not available.
Drug Deal Leads to Overdose, Death
One of those nine drug overdose deaths was Jeremy Stierman. We don’t know if Stierman fell into the category of desperate drug abusers. What we do know, based on a July 13, 2018 decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, is that Stierman was part of a network of friends who frequently purchased heroin from Chicago drug dealers.
The network of friends included Joshua Manning, Jeremy Nadermann, Michael Vanamburg, and Anthony Kelly. One of the network’s Chicago drug dealers was 23-year-old Antrell Desharron Lewis who would travel to Dubuque to sell his wares to the local users.
On March 2, 2016, according to the Eighth Circuit, Manning contacted Lewis about obtaining five grams of heroin on a “front.” Manning, Nadermann, Vanamburg and Kelly drove in Nadermann’s vehicle to meet with Lewis that same day. Manning reportedly gave Lewis $800 for the five-gram purchase. He also gave the dealer $200 for a previous fronted purchase.
With drugs in hand, Nadermann suggested that the group go to Jeremy Stierman’s apartment in Dubuque. Once at the apartment, Vanamburg and Kelly remained in the vehicle while Nadermann and Manning went inside. In the apartment and in Stierman’s presence, Manning weighed out one to two grams of the heroin for Nadermann and a “50 bag” (0.2 grams) for Vanamburg. Manning and Nadermann then returned to the vehicle at which time Manning gave Vanamburg his 50 bag.
The four heroin users decided to shoot up in the vehicle. Manning used a spoon and water to prepare his fix before handing the spoon with the residue to Kelly.
The Inescapable Compulsion of Opiate Addiction
Manning and Nadermann quickly realized the “heroin” was more potent than regular heroin, describing their high sensation as “more intense” that produced a “strong weird feeling.” Kelly, however, had a more dramatic experience with his smaller portion, falling into a state of unconsciousness in the backseat of the vehicle.
Unable to revive Kelly, Manning took the rest of his heroin back into Stierman’s apartment and called 911. While Manning was talking to the 911 operator, Nadermann entered the apartment and informed the occupants that Vanamburg was also unconscious.
While awaiting the emergency responders, Nadermann threw a spoon and his portion of the heroin into a nearby snowbank. Emergency responders arrived and realized immediately that they were dealing with “opiate overdoses.” They administered Narcan to the unconscious men, reviving them both. The two were then transferred to a local hospital by ambulance for treatment. A physician quickly realized that she was dealing with opiate overdoses and that Kelly was near death.
Back at Stierman’s apartment, the police searched the vehicle and found a metal spoon with residue in it and a small cotton swab. A lab report would later determine that the residue was from a heroin/fentanyl mixture.
When questioned by the police, Manning gave the officers false information about the “details” of Vanamburg’s and Kelly’s drug usage. He said he did not want to go to jail. The officers did not arrest either Manning or Nadermann.
On the evening of March 2nd Stierman told a friend who arrived at Stierman’s apartment that he was about to use drugs. Not a drug user, the friend did not want any part of the drug usage. He was, however, at the apartment when Manning and Nadermann showed up. The trio went into Stierman’s kitchen where they remained for about 15 minutes after which time Manning and Nadermann departed. At that point the friend asked Stierman if there were drugs in the apartment. Stierman confirmed there was. The friend left the apartment.
All this occurred with law enforcement and emergency responders still in front of the apartment controlling and ultimately clearing the crime scene. It reflects how determined Stierman was to get some of the heroin Manning had scored from Lewis and fix it.
And sometime during the early morning hours of March 3rd Stierman ingested the heroin. It killed him. His body was discovered later in the day by his sister. The police found a small amount of white powder in a “baggie” on the kitchen counter. A lab report would later identify the substance as 0.14 grams of heroin/fentanyl.
Federal Indictment and Sentencing Enhancement
The evidence obtained through testimony provided by Manning and Nadermann suggested that the baggie of drugs in Stierman’s kitchen was part of the heroin Manning had purchased from Lewis. The federal government elected to charge Lewis with one count of conspiracy to distribute a mixture or substance containing heroin and fentanyl resulting in death and serious bodily injury; and one count of actual distribution of a mixture of heroin/fentanyl that resulted in death and seriously bodily injury.
Following a three-day bench trial, Lewis was convicted on both counts and was subsequently sentenced to two concurrent 252-month prison terms followed by two concurrent 3-year terms of supervised release. Lewis appealed his convictions and sentences, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to convict because “Manning had no intention of paying for the drugs.”
The Eighth Circuit said federal law on drug conspiracy is clear: the government needs only to prove that there was an agreement to sell drugs, that the defendant knew about the agreement, and that the defendant intentionally joined the agreement. The appeals court then found there was overwhelming evidence that “Lewis and Manning were engaged in a heroin trafficking conspiracy.”
We have no problem with this judicial finding.
21 U.S.C. §§ 813, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(C)
Sentencing Enhancement for Distributing Resulting in Death is Unforgiving
Our problem is with the federal statute that permitted a sentencing enhancement for selling an analogue of a controlled substance even if Lewis did not know the “exact nature” of the substance. On appeal, Lewis argued that the government had failed to prove whether it was the heroine, furanylfentanyl or a combination that caused the overdoses and deaths. An expert testified that but for the use of furanylfentanyl, Stierman would not have died. Lewis argued he had only agreed and only intended to distribute heroin.
The appeals court held that to secure a death or serious bodily injury enhancement the government needed only to show that Lewis knowingly or intentionally sold the illicit drug and that the drug caused either death or serious bodily injury. In these kinds of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that,
“… where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or seriously bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty provision [of the federal statute] unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury.”
We simply cannot accept the Eighth Circuit’s conclusion that Lewis’s sell of the heroin/fentanyl mixture to Manning was the cause for Stierman’s overdose and ensuing death. The drugs Manning purchased from Lewis went through at least five sets of hands, including Stierman’s. There is no way to credibly determine whether any one of these individuals “doctored” the drugs along the way, particularly Manning or Nadermann.
And what is also indisputable is that Manning and Nadermann played a far greater role in Stierman’s overdose death than Lewis did.
That Lewis sold drugs to Manning is indisputable. That those drugs caused Stierman’s death was, and will forever remain, in dispute.
That’s why we believe it is a miscarriage of justice was done by holding Lewis responsible for Stierman’s death.