Monday, April 21, 2014
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a long list of orders on 2/24/14. Most notably, the court refused to hear cases challenging various laws restricting gun rights and you can read coverage of the gun case denials here. The court also summarily decided three criminal cases today. One of them is a pretty interesting story:
Samuel Ford was charged in an Iowa Federal Court with selling heroin to a man named Joseph Scolaro. The prosecution further alleged that the heroin Ford sold resulted in Scolaro’s death and that Ford had a prior felony drug conviction. The allegations of the prior and the death make the mandatory minimum sentence life in prison.
Ford went to trial claiming that he had not supplied Scolaro with the heroin and also arguing that heroin didn’t kill him. The evidence at trial was anything but clear and some of it is recounted in the lower court opinion.
Though Scolaro possessed heroin the day he died, no one actually saw him inject the drug and medical examiners found no obvious injection site. Post-mortem toxicology further muddied the waters listing the cause of death as:
"polydrug toxicity, with methamphetamine being the major contributing drug." The specimen inquiry also stated that Scolaro's blood had the presence of methamphetamine, amphetamine, pseudoephedrine, morphine, codeine, ethanol, alprazolam (Xanax) (an antianxiety drug), cotinine (a breakdown product of nicotine), and citalopram (an anti-depressant)
There was disagreement about whether the tests conclusively showed heroin in Scolaro’s system; though morphine is a metabolite of heroin, it can be produced from a wide rage of drugs. Even assuming heroin was present, the evidence only showed that it contributed to the mixed drug intoxication that killed the man, and none of the experts testified that the drug was a necessary factor in the death.
Still, the jury found Ford guilty and he got the mandatory minimum life sentence. Ford appealed to the Eighth Circuit and got no help there. He then took an extreme long shot and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.
Ford kind of lucked out because while his petition was pending the Court decided Burrage v. United States. There, the justices held that in drug trafficking death cases, the prosecution must prove that the victim would not have died but for the drug in question. That wasn't proven at Ford’s trial so the supreme court overturned the conviction.Tweet
Attorney Luke S. Rioux started the Harmless Error blog in 2012 covering developments in criminal law and trying to explain how and why the criminal justice system does what it does. Criminal cases are in the news everyday and it’s easy to read those stories as strange anecdotes. There’s always a lot more to it and this blog tries to look at the law, strategy and public policy behind those headlines.
Wondering what “Harmless Error” means? Read this post for a definition.
I’m a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Maine. I handle cases in State and Federal Court ranging from disorderly conduct to murder. I work for Fairfield & Associates an 11 lawyer firm with offices in Lyman and Portland. The firm also handles family law, personal injury and other case types.
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