Even though the penalty was mandatory under Louisiana law, a Denham Springs man sentenced to life in prison last month in the alleged heroin overdose death of his girlfriend in 2013 is urging a Baton Rouge state judge to rethink the punishment, saying it is out of step with the rest of the nation’s laws.
Jarret McCasland’s attorney, Rodney Messina, contends in a lengthy motion for reconsideration of sentence that the life term without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. He also argues that Flavia Cardenas died of a “self-induced drug overdose” and that the case was a “misuse of prosecutorial discretion.”
Messina wrote that a negligent homicide charge would have been more appropriate. Instead of life in prison, McCasland would have faced a five-year sentence and $5,000 fine if he had been convicted of negligence instead of second-degree murder.
Messina argues it was Cardenas, 19, who bought the heroin that she later injected and that McCasland merely carried the drug into her home at her request.
“Telling a 27-year-old defendant that he must live the remainder of his life in an 8-by-10-foot prison cell with no hope of release, regardless of whether he becomes totally rehabilitated, lives as a model prisoner or could become a productive, contributing member of society, yields a result that is just as cruel and unusual as a death sentence,” Messina claims in the motion filed Friday at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, whose office prosecuted McCasland, reacted sternly Wednesday to McCasland’s latest court filing.
“Once again, this defendant fails to accept responsibility for his actions and again seeks to blame everyone, a drug addiction, law enforcement, the courts, the district attorney, the jury and the law ... anyone but himself,” he said in an email. “The only abuse of any kind in this case was by the defendant and no other party.”
Moore said trial evidence clearly showed McCasland was a drug dealer, not merely a drug addict, who provided a lethal dose of heroin to Cardenas the night of her death.
“His own text messages before her death indicate that he obtained drugs for her, and an eyewitness saw him inject her with heroin after he prodded her into taking it,” the district attorney stated. “The evidence clearly showed that the defendant provided drugs not only to the victim but also sold drugs to others.”
McCasland told police he injected Cardenas with cocaine, but not heroin, the night before she died.
Moore said McCasland received a fair trial.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury unanimously convicted McCasland in November under a rarely utilized provision of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute — La. R.S. 14:30.1(3) — that allows prosecution for murder when somebody is killed and the suspect is accused of distribution or dispensing of an illegal drug that directly causes the recipient’s death.
Messina, who along with prosecutors spoke privately with the jury after the verdict, said jurors were troubled by the case.
“After the trial, the jury was confused by the idea of having to label the defendant as a murderer when they knew for a fact that the defendant did not kill” Cardenas, he states in the motion. “However, the elements of La. R.S. 14:30.1(3) are so broad that they had no choice but to place the label of murderer upon the defendant.”
No other state in the country, according to Messina, requires a mandatory term of life in prison without probation, parole or suspension of sentence in such cases without any regard to the circumstances of the case.
Messina points out that only 19 states and Washington, D.C., have murder statutes similar to Louisiana’s and there have been no recorded uses of the statutes in four of those states.
Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado and the District of Columbia require that the drugs were sold by the defendant, he says, and the New Jersey statute also differs from Louisiana’s in that it does not allow for convictions in situations — like that of Cardenas and McCasland — where there was co-possession or sharing of the narcotics.
None of the remaining states requires a mandatory sentence, Messina says, and each of them allows for some form of judicial discretion in determining the length of sentence. Only Arizona, Michigan and New Hampshire allow for a life sentence without parole, similar to Louisiana, he adds, but even in those states, judicial discretion is allowed under their statutes.
“This leaves Louisiana as the only state that has not evolved its standard of decency for punishment under this crime,” Messina states.
Cardenas was hospitalized for a drug overdose 13 months before she died, her mother testified at McCasland’s trial. McCasland did not know her daughter at that time, she said. Cardenas died in July 2013 with multiple drugs in her system, other trial testimony indicated.
“Her death was a self-inflicted accident, and based on her past overdose history, it was an accident waiting to happen regardless of whether the defendant knew her or not,” Messina charges.