Manslaughter charge dropped in Blue River fentanyl overdose case
July 31, 2017
Prosecutors dropped a manslaughter charge against the second defendant tied to a Blue River opioid overdose death during a Monday afternoon hearing that could significantly complicate an impending trial.
Brandon Johnson allegedly sold patches containing fentanyl, a high-potency opioid, to Mark Largay, who overdosed on them alone in his room and died while first responders tried to revive him in November 2015.
William Lancaster, a friend of Largay's who had advised him via text message about fentanyl prices but wasn't further involved in the alleged sale, was acquitted of manslaughter after an unusual, convoluted jury trial in May.
The jury convicted Lancaster of lesser drug charges and he was later sentenced to two years in a community corrections facility.
Johnson is still set to face a three-day jury trial on Aug. 14, but prosecutors said at the beginning of the Monday, July 31, hearing that they would only be seeking drug distribution charges.
Since Johnson was serving a sentence at community corrections in Denver at the time of the alleged sale, the charge is aggravated and could land him six years in prison if he is convicted.
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Johnson appeared calm during the more than hour-long hearing, affirming to District Judge Mark Thompson that he was ending plea negotiations with prosecutors and was ready to face a jury.
The hearing, however, left new questions unresolved that could complicate the prosecution's case — or see it moved to a Denver-area court at the eleventh hour.
Johnson's attorney, Cynthia Jones, argued to suppress key cellphone record evidence, claiming that a search warrant affidavit prepared by Summit County Sheriff's Office detective Rob Pearce didn't adequately show probable cause and used "stale" information three months after Largay's death.
Based on the evidence presented in Lancaster's trial, which is expected to overlap heavily with Johnson's, text messages allegedly sent between Johnson and Largay arranging the fentanyl sale will be foundational to the prosecution's case.
Jones sought to suppress evidence from T-Mobile confirming the messages came from Johnson's phone. If Judge Thompson rules in her favor, prosecutors might have trouble linking the texts to Johnson.
Contesting the legitimacy of search warrant affidavits is a common pre-trial strategy for dismissing evidence, and it was unclear how credible the challenge was.
Joe Kirwan, chief deputy district attorney for Colorado's Fifth Judicial District, argued that the motion to dismiss was baseless because County Court Judge Edward Casias approved the search warrant without asking for any amendments to the affidavit.
Judge Thompson said he expects to rule on the motion by Wednesday. During the final minutes of the hearing, however, Jones suggested that the venue for the trial might need to be changed in light of the manslaughter charge being dropped.
That offense had allegedly occurred in Summit County because that's where Largay died. The sale of the drugs, however, allegedly occurred at Johnson's community corrections facility in the Denver area.
With the manslaughter element dropped, Jones argued, the case might need to be moved to the jurisdiction where the remaining charge occurred.
The motion was a last-second curveball in a complex case that has been winding through Summit courts for more than a year and raises a type of venue question that is rarely argued in the county.
Judge Thompson asked Kirwan to submit his response to the venue question by Friday.
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