Emphasizing that heroin dealers are not welcome in East Baton Rouge Parish, where deaths linked to the drug have recently skyrocketed, a Baton Rouge state judge sentenced a Baker man to the maximum 50 years in prison without benefit of parole for trying to sell heroin on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge.
Kedric J. Williams’ attorney, James Rothkamm, said he cannot remember another 19th Judicial District Court judge handing down such a stiff sentence on a charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin. The case did not involve a death. Rothkamm said the conviction and sentence will be appealed.
Williams, 32, was found guilty in February following his May 6 arrest in the parking lot of a Popeyes in the 5900 block of Airline. A confidential informant had told police that a black male, possibly in a rental car, would be delivering heroin to an unknown person at that location.
When officers approached Williams, they say he tossed a clear plastic baggie containing suspected heroin under the front passenger seat of his vehicle. It turned out to be more than 20 grams — about an ounce — of heroin. Police also found $1,116 in his pants pocket.
Williams was on probation for aggravated assault with a firearm at the time.
District Judge Mike Erwin, who has been a judge on the 19th Judicial District Court bench since 1991, said he would like to have sentenced Williams to life in prison, which was the penalty for the crime of possession with intent to distribute heroin prior to 2001.
It was then that the state Legislature reduced the penalty, from life behind bars to five to 50 years in prison.
“I am aware that the change in the sentencing provisions is not the only factor involved in the rise of heroin, but I also know that when the penalty was life imprisonment, we didn’t have as many heroin dealers and users on every street corner selling this poison to our citizens,” the judge said.
Since 2001, he noted, there has been a steady climb in both the sale of heroin and deaths attributed to the drug in Baton Rouge.
Then in 2009, Erwin said, new state legislation gave heroin dealers “yet another chance” by allowing those already serving a life term for possession with intent to distribute the drug to be eligible for parole consideration after serving at least 15 years in prison.
“Once this information ‘hit the streets,’ so to say, the reported statistics show a drastic rise in heroin-related deaths in East Baton Rouge from five in 2012 to 38 deaths in 2015,” he said. There were 34 heroin related deaths in 2013 and 28 in 2014.
Erwin said the parish coroner already has confirmed two such deaths this year.
State lawmakers last year tweaked the minimum sentence for possession with intent to distribute heroin, raising it to 10 years, but Erwin said it was not drastic enough to deter heroin dealers.
“If a life sentence for dealing heroin were still an option, I would feel comfortable sentencing every convicted heroin dealer to life in prison without the eligibility of parole and truly believe it would be a start in the process of saving lives and hopefully run these criminals out of Baton Rouge,” the judge said.
Prior to 2001, he said, heroin dealers “stayed out of Louisiana for the most part” because the penalty was too harsh, and it wasn’t worth risking the possibility of serving a life sentence.
“Since the penalty has been reduced, Louisiana has given a ‘green light’ or a ‘welcome sign’ to dealers to come into our state,” the judge said.
Erwin stressed he was not singling out Williams to make an example out of him but said he hopes that imposing the maximum sentence on heroin dealers when warranted will set a precedent for other judges in Baton Rouge and across the state to follow.
“Heroin dealers are not welcome here, and if tried and convicted, they will more than likely receive the maximum sentence allowable by law,” he said.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III echoed Erwin’s sentiments, calling heroin a scourge.
“Those who deal heroin are dealing death to those addicted to this deadly drug. It is unfortunate that we now see so many addicted to heroin,” Moore said. “I hope that Judge Erwin’s sentence will cause those who deal heroin to consider the effect that this drug is having on our community and what impact it will have on their own lives.”
Last month, Jarret McCasland, 27, of Denham Springs, was sentenced by state District Judge Don Johnson to a mandatory term of life in prison for his role in the alleged heroin overdose death of his 19-year-old girlfriend, Flavia Cardenas, in July 2013.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury found him guilty of second-degree murder in November.
In another fatal heroin overdose case in the parish, Brandon Eirick, 32, of Baton Rouge, was sentenced last March to six years in prison in the death of his girlfriend, Leah Hutchinson, 31, in December 2013.
He pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and distribution of heroin.