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Appeals court reverses manslaughter conviction in fatal overdose case

The Court of Special Appeals on Friday reversed an involuntary manslaughter conviction for a man who sold heroin to a friend who later overdosed, finding there was no evidence that the man knew the drugs were unusually dangerous.

Nathan Johnson was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, possession with intent to distribute and possession of heroin and fentanyl at a bench trial in 2017 in Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter and a consecutive 20 years for distribution with all but 12 years suspended.

A three-judge panel ruled in a reported opinion that the state did not prove Johnson acted with gross negligence in providing the drugs that ultimately led to the fatal overdose of his friend Brandon Roe.

On Nov. 3, 2016, Roe and Johnson exchanged text messages about getting drugs, according to the opinion. Roe left his house at 9:30 p.m. to meet Johnson and returned 15 minutes later. Roe’s mother found him unresponsive around 12:30 a.m. Roe’s cause of death was determined to have been fentanyl and heroin intoxication.

A divided Court of Appeals ruled last year that selling heroin to someone who later overdoses can rise to the level of gross negligence involuntary manslaughter under certain circumstances. The majority in Thomas v. Maryland held that such prosecutions must be considered on a case-by-case basis, but it must be shown that the defendant knew or should have known the act of selling heroin carried a severe risk of harm.

Referring to “the delicate line” the high court walked in that opinion, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that the additional risk factors present in Thomas were not present in Johnson’s case. Thomas, a frequent and high-volume dealer who also used heroin himself, knew the victim in that case was young and desperate to purchase heroin, making more than 20 calls in a half hour. Johnson and Roe were peers and friends, Johnson was not a regular dealer and he did not use heroin as much as Roe, according to the opinion.

“Mr. Johnson was not in a position of power over Mr. Roe. The record reveals no reason for him to believe that Mr. Roe was at a heightened risk of harm, beyond the risk inherent in the act of buying and using heroin,” Judge Douglas R. M. Nazarian wrote for the unanimous court. “Nothing in the record suggests their meeting was unusual or contains any signs that Mr. Roe was desperate. Instead, two friends split drugs after talking throughout the day about how they were going to acquire them.”

Nazarian noted that the Court of Appeals decided not to create a rule that selling heroin is always grossly negligent and instead analyzed the factors of the specific transaction. He concluded that the factors in Johnson’s case did not support a finding of gross negligence.

“Put another way, if this drug sale qualifies as grossly negligent, we struggle to imagine a transaction that wouldn’t,” he wrote.

Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff and retired Judge Robert A. Zarnoch, sitting by special assignment, joined in the opinion.

Prosecutors argued that Johnson described the drugs with a flame emoji, which an expert said meant “really good,” and that Johnson did not know the drug’s composition or origin. But the court found there was insufficient evidence that Johnson knew Roe was at a particularly high risk of an overdose.

The court also upheld Johnson’s conviction for possession with intent to distribute and found no error in the trial court’s decision to admit the available text messages between Johnson and Roe.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Office for the Attorney General did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Johnson was represented by Matthew W. Lachman of Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington. Lachman did not respond to a request for comment.

The case is Nathan Joseph Johnson v. State of Maryland, No. 109, Sept. Term 2018.

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