Pubdate: Sun, 19 Sep 2004
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2004 Roanoke Times
Author: Jen McCaffery
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


In drug distribution cases resulting in death or serious bodily injury,
Western District prosecutors are frequently using a law with stricter

After Radford University student William Warren Devers Jr. supplied the
OxyContin that in part caused the fatal overdose of a longtime friend, a
federal judge sentenced him to probation.

But after Vincent Jennell Jr. of Salem pleaded guilty to supplying heroin
that led to two overdose deaths, another federal judge sentenced him to 20

Prosecutors in the Western District of Virginia have been making increasing
use of a federal law that says if defendants are convicted of distribution
of drugs that leads to death or serious bodily injury, they face a mandatory
prison sentence of 20 years to life. The law was passed in 1986, in the wake
of the cocaine overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len

Prosecutor Donald Wolthuis attributed the number of prosecutions of
defendants whose alleged distributions led to death or serious bodily injury
to what he called a "shocking and chilling increase" in overdoses in
Southwest Virginia from the abuse of opiates such as the prescription
painkiller OxyContin, methadone and heroin.

Dr. William Massello of the state medical examiner's office for Western
Virginia said in March that fatal overdoses for prescription drugs are
rising rapidly in Western Virginia. In 2003, 213 people died from drug
overdoses in the western part of the state, Massello said.

People charged in Southwest Virginia have ranged from a doctor to dealers to
addicts to dabblers.

Prosecutions alleging that distributions led to death or serious bodily
injury have bubbled up around the United States, and some states have passed
their own version of the law and won some convictions. But prosecutors in
the Western District have used the law in an increasing number of cases. By
contrast, federal public defenders in the Eastern District of Virginia only
recall one case in the past few years in which prosecutors argued that a
drug distribution resulted in death or serious bodily injury, Assistant
Federal Public Defender Gerald Zerkin said. That figure wouldn't include a
small number of cases in which the defender's office had conflicts or cases
in which defendants hired their own attorneys.

Wolthuis acknowledged that his office's prosecutions for death or serious
bodily injury have had a range of results. Part of that likely has to do
with the strength of the evidence in each case. But part of it also has to
do with how the federal system works.

Despite the enaction of federal sentencing guidelines nationwide in 1987 in
an attempt to make sure defendants in the United States receive similar
sentences for the same crimes, some of the death and serious injury cases
show just how much defendants' fate can change depending on whether they
cooperate with federal prosecutors or not.

Roanoke attorney Gary Lumsden, who has represented defendants on death or
serious bodily injury cases, said he thinks use of the law is appropriate
when used with reason. He argued that in some cases, prosecutors are taking
cases where the connection from distribution to overdose is nebulous.

"It becomes a device in order to get people to plead guilty," said Lumsden.
Defendants are intimidated by the potential 20-year sentence and don't want
to take that chance, he said.

The Western Virginia death and serious bodily injury cases have resulted in
a range of outcomes.

The defendants who faced the largest number of allegations were Roanoke pain
specialist Cecil Byron Knox; his office manager, Beverly Gale Boone; and
Tiffany Durham, who worked at Knox's former practice, Southwest Virginia
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. They were each charged in February
2002 with distribution of narcotics outside the scope of legitimate medical
practice that allegedly led to the death or serious bodily injury charges.

Durham pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Boone was acquitted on all the
drug charges and Knox on most of them. Boone and Knox face a second trial in
November on racketeering, conspiracy and fraud charges. And Knox also still
faces charges that his prescriptions led to death or serious bodily injury.

In another case, a defendant was charged with causing his own overdose. In
November, Deshawn Walter Anderson swallowed cocaine as Roanoke police chased
him. He later had to be brought back to life at Carilion Roanoke Memorial

Prosecutors agreed to drop the death or serious injury part of the
distribution charge against Anderson in exchange for his guilty plea to
possessing more than 5 grams of cocaine. He was sentenced to four years in

In the case of Radford student Devers, prosecutors asked the judge to drop
the death and serious bodily injury part of the case, based in part on
evidentiary issues and on requests from the victim's family.

Other cases have resulted in longer sentences. In June, federal judge James
Turk sentenced seven members of a heroin conspiracy ring that spanned from
Philadelphia to the Roanoke Valley. After a bench trial, Turk determined
that the members of the conspiracy, who had pleaded guilty to heroin
distribution charges, should not be held responsible for nonfatal overdoses
that resulted.

Turk sentenced defendants in the case, most of whom were heroin users
themselves, according to evidence at their guilty pleas, to sentences
ranging from three to five and a half years. Turk was also concerned that
under federal sentencing guidelines, the leader of the conspiracy, Nicholas
Weir of Philadelphia, got the lightest sentence of 32 months.

Defendants in a related case weren't so lucky. Issac Ramos and Javier
"Angel" Cruz, both of Philadelphia, were charged along with Vincent Jennell
Jr. in connection with the overdose deaths of Dustin Rhodes and Raymond
Moore in June 2000. Jennell, a self-confessed drug addict, admitted to
preparing the syringe that led to Rhodes' death and actually injecting

Jennell took responsibility for their deaths with his guilty plea, despite
the fact that the autopsies of both men showed that they had other
substances in their system that may have contributed to their overdose
deaths. Jennell's attorney, Chris Kowalczuk, did not return a call for

Supplier Cruz, meanwhile, wound up with a sentence of about 10 1/2 years on
the same charge. Ramos, who fled after he was charged, eventually pleaded
guilty to the distribution that resulted in death or serious bodily injury
charge. He was later released on bond and assisted federal authorities with
an ongoing investigation.

Ramos was also sentenced to 20 years, but prosecutor Wolthuis has asked Turk
to sentence him to less time under federal sentencing guidelines because of
Ramos' acceptance of responsibility in the case.

In a third case in which defendants were charged as part of a drug
conspiracy that led to an overdose, Ronnie Darnell Early was also sentenced
to the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.
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