Judge refuses to alter life sentence for Denham Springs man in girlfriend’s alleged heroin death _lowres

Jarret J. McCasland

Despite saying the mandatory sentence he imposed “bothers me tremendously,” a Baton Rouge state judge refused Monday to reduce a Denham Springs man’s life prison term without parole in the 2013 heroin overdose death of his 19-year-old girlfriend.

Jarret McCasland’s lead attorney told District Judge Don Johnson the sentence is “mind-boggling” as well as a cruel, unusual and excessive punishment for the 27-year-old man who was unanimously convicted last fall of second-degree murder in the July 26, 2013, death of Flavia “Cathy” Cardenas.

Johnson sentenced McCasland in February.

Defense attorney Rodney Messina asked the judge Monday to declare unconstitutional a rarely used provision of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute that allows for a murder prosecution when someone is killed and the suspect is accused of distributing or dispensing an illegal drug that directly causes the recipient’s death.

Under the statutory provision, prosecutors do not have to prove a defendant had the specific intent to kill. McCasland was the first person convicted in East Baton Rouge Parish of second-degree murder under that provision.

Johnson, who stressed he is not a policymaker, noted the statute does not involve traditional murder.

“I don’t have to buy a drug. I just have to share it with you,” he said, while in the end declining to strike down the statute. The judge noted that both McCasland and Cardenas were drug addicts at the time.

After Monday’s court proceedings, lawyer Chris Alexander, who will handle McCasland’s appeal, lambasted the law.

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“The court was right to be troubled by a law that equates poor judgment with murder. Any statute that allows a murder conviction under these facts is not only unconstitutional but very alarming in its potential reach,” Alexander said.

“Whoever drafted this law, and whatever governor signed it, either did not know or did not care that the statute makes a mockery of the core requirement for murder: intent to kill,” he added. “We are going to ask that it be declared unconstitutional.”

Colin Clark, an assistant state attorney general, argued at the hearing that he believes the statute passes constitutional muster.

“This is just another felony murder,” he said.

Cardenas died with other drugs in her system, including cocaine.

Messina contends Cardenas injected herself with a fatal dose of heroin at her mother’s house. A friend of Cardenas testified at McCasland’s trial that she saw McCasland inject Cardenas with heroin and cocaine earlier that evening at the friend’s house.

Prosecutor Robert Savage reminded Johnson that McCasland sent Cardenas a text message the afternoon before she died asking her if she wanted to get high. Savage argued further that texts from McCasland indicate he continued to distribute heroin even after his girlfriend died.

Johnson said he offered to sentence McCasland to less than 20 years in prison if he pleaded guilty in the case before trial, but McCasland turned down the offer.