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

Jarret J. McCasland

An appeals court has refused to reverse a Denham Springs man's second-degree murder conviction and life sentence and won't grant him a new trial in the 2013 heroin overdose of his girlfriend in Baton Rouge.

The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal also refused Jarret McCasland's alternative request for a hearing on his claim that Flavia "Cathy" Cardenas, 19, wasn't murdered but died from a "tragic but unintentional drug overdose."

McCasland, 32, was the first person found guilty of second-degree murder in East Baton Rouge Parish under a seldom-used provision in the law that allows police to arrest someone on the charge if distributing or dispensing an illegal drug is the direct cause of the death.

The provision doesn't require prosecutors to show a defendant specifically intended to kill.

McCasland's post-conviction relief attorneys, Carol Kolinchak and Jim Boren, argued in an April appeal to the 1st Circuit that Louisiana's drug-induced homicide provision is unconstitutionally vague and "dispenses with the bedrock principle of criminal law that criminal liability is supposed to mirror the level of culpability that one actually has in the chain of events that occurred."

"Here, where the decedent died after she herself willingly bought drugs, on her own from a third-party, and willingly and knowingly ingested those drugs, also at times on her own and other times with Mr. McCasland, and later died as a result, it is a violation of the fundamental principle of criminal culpability to make Mr. McCasland responsible as her murderer," they wrote.

A three-judge 1st Circuit panel on Tuesday denied their appeal without issuing written reasons.

Boren said Wednesday that the next step is the Louisiana Supreme Court, and if necessary the federal courts "where the constitution has priority over popular opinion and the next election cycle."

Boren said he and Kolinchak are "very disappointed in the 1st Circuit decision, denying to really even look closely at the very unfair and unjust conviction of Mr. McCasland."

"All too often Louisiana courts refuse to clean up their own mess, like this, and make innocent people like Jarret sit in jail for years until a federal court actually looks at the unfairness and provides justice," he said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, whose office prosecuted McCasland, said the 1st Circuit's denial of McCasland's latest appeal was "completely appropriate based on the law, facts and evidence gathered during this investigation and presented at trial."

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"His requests have been heard by other courts, all of which have denied relief," he added.

In 2017, the 1st Circuit affirmed McCasland's unanimous 2015 second-degree murder conviction and sentence on direct appeal. The court said McCasland, "along with his actions, is the type of offender the statute meant to address."

The state Supreme Court refused in 2018 and again in 2019 to review the case because his appellate lawyers filed his appeal too late.

McCasland's trial attorney, Rodney Messina, argued to the jury that Cardenas  purchased the heroin and injected herself with a fatal dose at her mother's house on July 26, 2013.

But a friend of Cardenas testified she saw McCasland inject Cardenas with heroin and cocaine earlier that evening at the friend's house.

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.

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

About a year before her death, Cardenas was taken to the hospital for a drug overdose, her mother testified. Cardenas was 17 at the time and didn't know McCasland.

Three months before she died, Cardenas and McCasland were arrested together on drug charges.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.