A 26-year-old Denham Springs man accused of giving his 19-year-old fiancée a lethal dose of heroin in Baton Rouge in 2013 was unanimously convicted Thursday night of second-degree murder.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury of eight women and four men deliberated about 75 minutes before finding Jarret McCasland guilty as charged in the death of Flavia Cardenas, of Baton Rouge, on July 26, 2013.
McCasland faces a mandatory term of life in prison. State District Judge Don Johnson ordered McCasland held without bail until his Jan. 11 sentencing.
Cardenas’ emotional mother, Nancy Landa, declined comment after the verdict was announced shortly after 9:30 p.m.
McCasland and his father hugged and cried before sheriff’s deputies led the son from the courtroom.
McCasland, who did not testify in his own defense, told sheriff’s detectives he injected Cardenas with cocaine the evening before she died but not heroin. Christina Garman, one of Cardenas’ friends, testified Tuesday that McCasland injected Cardenas with cocaine and heroin at Garman’s home that evening.
Under a seldom-used provision of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute, prosecutors had to prove, among other things, that the heroin McCasland allegedly gave Cardenas was the direct cause of her death. Prosecutors did not have to show McCasland had the specific intent to kill.
About all the experts for the prosecution and defense could agree on Thursday was that Cardenas died July 26, 2013.
Dr. Cameron Snider, the pathologist who performed her autopsy, and toxicologist Patricia Williams testified for the prosecution that Cardenas — who had cocaine and numerous other drugs in her system at the time of her death — died of a heroin overdose.
“This is a death due to heroin,” Snider said while being questioned by East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Robert Savage. “The drug that overwhelmingly contributed to this death was heroin.”
Snider said a heroin overdose caused Cardenas to suffer respiratory failure.
“Oh, heroin’s definitely the cause of death,” added Williams, who reviewed the medical and police reports in the case as well as witness statements.
The state rested its case after Snider and Williams testified.
The defense’s expert, neuroscientist Steven Barker, strongly disagreed with their conclusions.
“What she died from was a multi-drug combination,” he said. “She was a soup of very dangerous drugs.”
Barker suggested Cardenas was speedballing, or taking doses of heroin and cocaine at the same time. Cocaine increases the heart rate, while heroin slows it down.
“The cocaine delays the effect of heroin so you think you can take more of it,” he said.
McCasland’s lead attorney, Rodney Messina, pointed out to Snider that his Sept. 19, 2013, report stated Cardenas’ cause of death was toxicity of heroin and other drugs.
Snider replied that her respiratory failure was “largely induced by heroin.”
The experts also could not reach agreement on the time frame of Cardenas’ death.
The 911 call that reported Cardenas was unresponsive was made at 10:40 a.m. on July 26, 2015. Cardenas’ mother, Nancy Landa, testified Wednesday that McCasland was with her daughter at Landa’s house from about 11:30 the night before until roughly 2 a.m., when he left.
Snider testified he believes Cardenas died closer to 4 a.m. — around the time Landa said she heard her daughter snoring — as opposed to later in the morning. He said snoring is a sign of heroin-induced respiratory distress, but Landa noted in her testimony that her daughter often snored.
Williams suggested Cardenas died around 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m., but Barker surmised she died sometime between 8 a.m. and when her body was found because rigor mortis — the progressive stiffening of the muscles that occurs several hours after death — had not taken place. Barker suggested Cardenas ingested or injected heroin sometime around 8 a.m., well after McCasland had left her home.
Cardenas was hospitalized in June 2012 for a drug overdose at the age of 17, before she knew McCasland. She and McCasland were arrested together in Gonzales on drug charges in April 2013.