When heroin use results in death, does the heroin dealer bear any level of responsibility? Federal law passed in 1986 mandated a 20-year sentence for any dealer who sold drugs that contributed to someone’s death. The law stated that over 500,000 people had died from heroin use.
The law was passed while the War on Drugs was in full swing. While it received little attention over the years, it was invoked in the case of Marcus Burrage, who sold heroin to a married couple in Iowa; the next day, the husband turned up dead in his bed. Burrage was dealt the 20-year max for dealing the fateful heroin. He appealed his sentence all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Case Unfolds
Things started rolling for Burrage—or rolling the wrong way—back in 2009, when he sold heroin to a confidential informant in a transaction witnessed by an undercover state law enforcement official. The transaction was tape-recorded, and so Burrage, aka Lil C, won a spot on the government’s radar. The following year, Burrage sold some heroin to a married couple in Iowa. The husband and wife did the heroin plus some other stuff, and it was the wife who found her husband overdosed to death in his bed the next morning. Talk about a rude awakening.
Prosecutors went after Burrage with a vengeance, invoking this ancient law and actually winning the 20-year sentence. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that a sentence could not be less than 10 years and permitted a life sentence if the victim’s death resulted from heroin use.
Was Heroin Use Proved?
Burrage’s lawyer argued that the victim had a long history of drug abuse, and not just heroin. The toxicology reports revealed that the man who died had ingested morphine, marijuana, and benzodiazepines in addition to his heroin use, and he hadn’t received any treatment. The lawyer wanted the judge to instruct the jury that the heroin alone was not sufficient to cause the man’s death, or that it could not be proven as the cause. When the judge refused to provide those instructions to the jury, and also when the judge refused to find the jury “not credible,” his lawyer—by then Burrage had multiple lawyers—appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Legal beagles initially speculated that justice would be done and Burrage’s sentence would be upheld. A man was dead, and the heroin use had certainly contributed to that tragedy. The justices in November 2013 deliberated on a variety of scenarios, including the culpability of someone who has contributed to another person’s death. For example, they said, what if three drops of poison in a glass of water will kill a person. What if each of three people puts one drop of that poison in the glass, and the person who drinks the water dies. Is any one of those three people guilty of causing that death? Are all three of them guilty?
What Do You Think?
Last summer, all nine of the justices agreed that the prosecutors failed to prove that the heroin actually caused the death. Its contribution to the man’s death was not enough to sustain the sentence dictated in the 1986 law. They didn’t care that the law stated that over 500,000 people had died from heroin use. They didn’t care about today’s statistics cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse: Over 4 million Americans have used heroin, and approximately 23 percent of them—over a million—will become addicted.
The name of the man who died was Joshua Abraham Banka, and he hasn’t gained as much Internet fame as Burrage. He never received any help to kick his heroin habit. But you can get help for heroin use.