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

Jarret J. McCasland

Facing a mandatory life prison term when he’s sentenced later this week, a Denham Springs man is asking a state judge to either reduce his second-degree murder conviction to negligent homicide or grant him a new trial in the 2013 heroin overdose death of his 19-year-old girlfriend in Baton Rouge.

Jarret McCasland’s attorneys argue the Louisiana law under which he was prosecuted was never intended to apply to cases such as his, but for those who sell dangerous drugs, and they say a life sentence without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors point out that McCasland’s November conviction by a 12-person jury in the death of Flavia Cardenas was unanimous, and they claim life in prison is “just” punishment for the 26-year-old man.

“Jarret McCasland killed Flavia Cardenas, and he did it with heroin, one of the most lethal drugs available,” prosecutors Robert Savage and Will Morris wrote in documents filed Friday opposing a reduction of his conviction or granting him another trial.

Under a rarely used provision of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute, Morris and Savage had to prove that the heroin McCasland is accused of giving Cardenas was the direct cause of her death on July 26, 2013.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said McCasland was the first person convicted in the parish of second-degree murder under that provision of the state statute.

McCasland’s attorneys, father and daughter Rodney Messina and Janna Messina Kiefer, note that the crime for which he was convicted is the only crime under Louisiana law that carries a mandatory life sentence without parole with no required intent on behalf of the defendant.

“This anomaly led to an unreasonable result in this case,” they argue.

The defense attorneys also state in their Jan. 26 motion that numerous drugs were found in Cardenas’ system in addition to heroin, including cocaine, oxycodone, alprazolam (Xanax), codeine, THC and alcohol.

“Cocaine, Oxycodone, Xanax, Codeine and Alcohol all have the ability to cause a lethal overdose on their own,” his lawyers argue. “For any expert to determine which of this multitude of fatal narcotics or alcohol was the direct cause of the death is impossible.”

That argument, according to Savage and Morris, is misguided.

“It is obvious that the word ‘direct’ is not ‘only’ or ‘sole.’ ‘Direct’ is the word in the statute, and it is the word the jury was instructed to consider in reaching its verdict,” they contend.

The prosecutors also counter that McCasland admitted in a police statement that he gave Cardenas more heroin — after allegedly giving her heroin at a friend’s house earlier that evening — while she was in her bed at her mother’s house, where she was found dead.

“He was the one who gave it to her when she took more heroin on her death bed,” Savage and Morris state.

McCasland’s attorneys also complain the state presented no eyewitness testimony to account for happenings during several hours prior to Cardenas’ mother finding her daughter dead about 10:40 a.m. McCasland reportedly left the house about 2 a.m., and Cardenas’ mother testified her daughter was snoring around 4 a.m.

“The State failed to rebut the reasonable possibility that the decedent woke up in the morning and ingested the Xanax and/or other narcotics that were wholly unrelated to any ‘distribution’ by the defendant,” Messina and Kiefer argue.

“Given the circumstances, it is unquestionable that a mandatory life sentence without the benefit of parole is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the actions taken by the defendant, and shocks one’s sense of justice,” they add.

Savage and Morris strongly disagree.

“Tragically, Jarret McCasland’s long history of dealing heroin and other drugs impacted at least one life irreversibly and directly resulted in the untimely death of Flavia “Cathy” Cardenas,” they argue.

State District Judge Don Johnson is scheduled to sentence McCasland on Thursday.

Cardenas was hospitalized in June 2012 — 13 months before she died — for a drug overdose when she was 17, her mother testified. In April 2013, Cardenas and McCasland were arrested together in Gonzales on drug charges.