Lawyer claims client’s heroin-related death case is being prosecuted more harshly than similar cases _lowres

Jarret J. McCasland

A Denham Springs man’s attorney claims his client is being prosecuted more harshly than two other men charged in separate fatal heroin overdoses in East Baton Rouge Parish, and he’s subpoenaed the autopsy findings from those cases to try to prove his point.

Jarret McCasland, 26, is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 16 on a second-degree murder charge in the 2013 heroin overdose death of his girlfriend, Flavia Cardenas. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison is convicted as charged.

“We’re just trying to figure out why they’re prosecuting this case so hard,” Rodney Messina, who represents McCasland, said Tuesday of the subpoena he had issued to East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark for the autopsy reports on Leah Hutchinson and Guy Koontz Jr.

Cardenas, 19, and Hutchinson, 31, died July 26, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2013, respectively. Koontz, 42, died Feb. 27, 2014.

McCasland is accused of injecting Cardenas with a lethal dose of heroin. A witness told sheriff’s deputies that McCasland also administered cocaine to Cardenas at the witness’ home.

Heroin use in the parish has skyrocketed, prompting Baton Rouge police and other law enforcement to work overdose cases more aggressively by using Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute. A section of that statute allows police to arrest someone on second-degree murder if the distribution or dispensing of an illegal drug is the direct cause of a death.

“The State’s case against Jarret McCasland involves evidence reflecting allegations that he distributed narcotics, including heroin, at the time of the murder, as well as in the months before and after it,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in an email Tuesday. “We believe that the facts at trial of this case will make it clear why application of the felony-murder doctrine is appropriate in his case.”

What is clear, Messina maintains, is that heroin, cocaine and other substances were found in Cardenas’ body.

Now he wants to know what drugs were in the systems of Hutchinson and Koontz at the time of their deaths.

“I think it’s relevant,” Messina said. “The state may not think it’s relevant.”

Whether state District Judge Don Johnson allows Messina to pursue that line of questioning at McCasland’s trial remains to be seen.

In the case of 34-year-old Marc Roussel, who was indicted last year on charges of heroin possession and possession with intent to distribute heroin in the death of Koontz, Roussel told police he injected Koontz with heroin. Roussel was initially booked on a second-degree murder count. A pathologist found that Koontz died with multiple drugs in his system.

“That’s no different than Cardenas,” Messina said. “Why are they after this case so hard?”

Moore has said previously that the charge in Cardenas’ death is based on allegations the heroin was the direct cause of her death.

In another fatal heroin overdose case, Brandon Eirick was booked on a second-degree murder count, indicted on counts of manslaughter and heroin possession, and pleaded guilty last fall to negligent homicide and heroin distribution in the death of Hutchinson, his girlfriend. Eirick, who was sentenced in March to six years in prison, told police he bought heroin for Hutchinson but did not inject her with the drug.

Moore noted that his office presented the McCasland, Eirick and Roussel cases to a grand jury, and the panel charged each defendant based on the unique facts and circumstances of each case.

“We handle each case individually based on the specific facts and circumstances of each case,” he said.

In Roussel’s case, a conviction on the charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin would carry a prison term of 10 to 50 years. His next court date is Nov. 30.