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Plea deal reduces Virginia man's homicide charge to manslaughter

Can a drug dealer be held accountable for the death of a customer? Both engage in an illegal activity by selling and buying street drugs and know use of the drugs can be high risk. Evidence clarifies whether a dealer's role warrants criminal charges and how severe those charges are.

A Virginia man faced a felony homicide charge over the death of a Williamsburg heroin addict in April 2013. The unresponsive drug user was found by his brother on the floor of a motel room. Motel 6 employees gave the sibling access to the room when they learned the brother had not answered the door despite repeated knocks.

Crime investigators discovered paraphernalia that suggested the victim used heroin before his death. A lab test detected a deadly mix of drugs in the man's system characteristic of heroin. Police reviewed footage from the motel security camera, interviewed witnesses and examined phone records.

The investigation led to a 39-year-old James City man. The surviving brother, wearing a recording device, met with the man suspected of selling heroin to the overdose victim. The alleged dealer was arrested and charged after admitting to the brother he shared heroin with the user -- the same batch of heroin that killed the addict but allowed the dealer to survive.

A plea agreement was struck. Homicide was reduced to involuntary manslaughter; another charge for heroin distribution was dismissed. The accused man was convicted earlier this month after entering an Alford plea -- recognition the state's evidence was likely to lead to conviction and acceptance of penalties, without an admission of guilt.

As part of the same deal, prosecutors reduced prison time to a maximum of 18 months. The defendant avoided a possible 10-year prison sentence, the highest term for involuntary manslaughter. A criminal defense attorney's dogged review of evidence and powerful negotiation skills can have a tremendous, positive impact on a legal outcome.

Source: The Virginia Gazette, "Homicide becomes manslaughter in plea deal over Williamsburg fatal overdose" Susan Robertson, Jun. 09, 2014

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