Court rejects murder conviction for dealer in overdose death

Published 11:19 am Saturday, September 8, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi appeals court has rejected a test case of whether drug dealers can be prosecuted for murder under state law when a drug user dies.

The state Court of Appeals last week overturned the second-degree murder conviction of Skylar O’Kelly, who had been convicted of the crime after a friend died from consuming synthetic LSD given to him by O’Kelly.

“The evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to support a conviction for either depraved-heart murder or the lesser-included offense of culpable negligence manslaughter,” Judge Jack Wilson wrote for an 8-2 majority of the court.

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Margaret Ann Morgan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, said Friday that Hood’s office hadn’t yet decided if it would appeal the case to the state Supreme Court. If Hood doesn’t appeal, O’Kelly will be resentenced on a drug trafficking conviction.

The ruling could spark further state legislative effort to enhance penalties for dealing illegal drugs leading to overdose deaths. A bill to require a minimum 40-year prison sentence for anyone who sold or transferred an illegal drug resulting in death failed in the state House this year. State officials have been handing off at least a few drug dealer prosecutions to federal officials because federal law requires at least 20 years in prison when death or serious bodily injury results.

O’Kelly was convicted in 2016 of second degree murder, which Mississippi law also calls depraved-heart murder, in the 2014 overdose death of friend Parker Rodenbaugh from synthetic LSD in Starkville. O’Kelly was also convicted of drug trafficking after officers found 425 units of synthetic LSD in a closet.

The court ruled that O’Kelly giving Rodenbaugh the two doses of the drug wasn’t enough to support either a manslaughter or a second-degree murder charge because there was no evidence that O’Kelly believed the drug would put anyone at risk of dying. O’Kelly took the same dose as Rodenbaugh.

The court rejected O’Kelly’s claims that the state hadn’t proved the drug trafficking charge, saying testing eight of the 425 synthetic LSD units found in O’Kelly’s apartment was enough proof.

Judge Virginia Carlton dissented saying O’Kelly should have been eligible for a second-degree murder conviction.

“The evidence presented at trial sufficiently supports O’Kelly’s conviction for depraved-heart murder,” Carlton wrote.

Judge Jim Greenlee also dissented, saying O’Kelly should have been eligible for a manslaughter conviction.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, a Brandon Republican who’s running for attorney general, proposed the stiffer state sanctions during the regular legislative session. Baker, citing the O’Kelly appeal in July, said Mississippi needs a law with more clear-cut penalties for overdose deaths.

Some people oppose the stiffer sentences like those set out under federal law, though. The Drug Policy Alliance, in a November report , said 20 states can charge people with murder or manslaughter in the case of drug overdoses. The alliance, though, derides those harsh sanctions, saying they exemplify a wrongheaded idea that harsh sanctions will deter drug sales, when instead they’ll only result in longer prison stays.