Despite saying he would have preferred a different verdict, a state judge refused Thursday to overturn a Denham Springs man’s unanimous second-degree murder conviction in the alleged heroin overdose death of his girlfriend in Baton Rouge in 2013.
Johnson said he will sentence the 27-year-old McCasland on Friday. He faces a mandatory penalty of life behind bars without parole.
McCasland’s 19-year-old fiancée, Flavia “Cathy” Cardenas, died the morning of July 26, 2013.
Johnson, who said it was clear from trial testimony that both Cardenas and McCasland were using drugs before she died, sounded a stern warning to those taking or thinking about taking heroin: “Be prepared to die!”
The judge noted there is no way to determine the potency of individual doses of heroin.
Even though she had a number of drugs in her system, including cocaine and heroin, prosecutors had to prove — among other things — that the heroin McCasland allegedly gave Cardenas was the direct cause of her death.
McCasland’s lead attorney, Rodney Messina, argued Thursday that the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office failed to do so. Messina had argued at the November trial that Cardenas introduced McCasland to heroin. McCasland told police she also introduced him to injecting drugs.
But prosecutor Robert Savage referred Thursday to McCasland as “her dealer” and said Cardenas’ body was “chock-full of heroin.”
The defense’s expert, neuroscientist Steven Barker, testified at McCasland’s trial that Cardenas “was a soup of very dangerous drugs” and concluded she died from a multi-drug combination.
Johnson referred to that testimony Thursday but added, “Mr. McCasland helped that soup.”
Messina argued vehemently that a seldom used provision of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute under which McCasland was prosecuted was meant for drug dealers who profit from their activity.
“Mr. McCasland never sold anything to her. In fact, they were both using,” Messina told the judge. “If that’s (a mandatory life sentence) not cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is.”
“Was Mr. McCasland negligent? I believe he was because he could have stopped it,” he acknowledged.
Messina stressed that McCasland was a user, not a dealer.
“The statute does not say ‘seller’ or ‘buyer.’ It talks about distribution and dispensing,” Savage countered.
He also said there are tiers of drug dealers, and dealers come in all forms.
“In this case, the dealer was the boyfriend of the victim,” the prosecutor said. “The defendant is a heroin dealer, and his actions led to the death of Cathy Cardenas.”
Messina asked the judge to “do the right thing” and either find McCasland guilty of negligent homicide or order a new trial.
“I would have preferred a different verdict, but that’s not my choice,” Johnson said in rejecting both requests.
Earlier in the hearing, Johnson asked Savage if Cardenas bore any responsibility for her untimely death.
“Unfortunately I think she’s paying that responsibility right now,” the prosecutor replied. “She would not be dead if Jarret McCasland hadn’t given heroin to her.”
Savage reminded the judge that McCasland sent a text message to Cardenas the afternoon before she died asking her, “U wanna get high with me?”
Johnson also asked if McCasland and Cardenas were both intoxicated that night.
“Jarret McCasland knew what he was doing that night,” Savage answered. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t so intoxicated that he couldn’t stop.”
Messina argued that the syringe of heroin McCasland handed Cardenas in her bedroom the night she died was heroin she had purchased.
“Flavia Cardenas shot herself up,” Messina argued. “He should go to jail for the rest of his life for that?”
Savage said the answer to that question is yes.
“He provided it to her and she died,” he argued.
But Messina argued that McCasland left Cardenas’ house around 2 a.m., but when paramedics were called to the house around 10:30 a.m., she had a puncture mark in her arm with fresh blood weeping from it.
“How did the blood not clot?” Messina asked the judge, suggesting to him that Cardenas injected herself well after McCasland left her.
Prosecutors did not have to prove at trial McCasland had the specific intent to kill.
“There’s absolutely intent that he distributed drugs,” Savage told Johnson. “He encouraged people to try heroin. He did it repeatedly.”
Christina Garman, who called herself Cardenas’ best friend, testified at the trial that she saw McCasland inject Cardenas three times with heroin, including once anally, and three more times with cocaine at Garman’s house the night before Cardenas died.
McCasland told police he injected Cardenas with cocaine but not heroin.
Cardenas’ mother testified she found a digital drug scale in her daughter’s bedroom closet after she died and turned it over to authorities.