BERLIN — A divided Maryland Court of Appeals this week upheld the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Berlin drug dealer for supplying the heroin that resulted in the fatal overdose of his customer in what has become an increasingly “weighty” issue.
In June 2015, Patrick Thomas, now 62, of Berlin, sold four packs of heroin to another local man, who ultimately ingested all of it, resulting in a fatal overdose. Thomas was later found guilty in Worcester County Circuit Court in distribution and involuntary manslaughter counts and was sentenced to 20 years for the latter.
Thomas then filed an appeal with the state’s Court of Special Appeals on the grounds there was not an established connection between his sale of heroin to the victim and the victim’s overdose death at a different time and place from where the transaction took place. In April 2018, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction in terms of the involuntary manslaughter count, but the possession with intent to distribute count stood.
The state then petitioned the higher Court of Appeals seeking a reversal of the lower appeals court’s decision. This week, the Court of Special Appeals issued an opinion doing just that, essentially upholding Thomas’ judgment of the Worcester County Circuit Court, but it wasn’t easy. The high court vote 4-3 to reverse the Court of Special Appeals decision and called the case fraught and weighty.
“The past 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in heroin use, abuse and accessibility,” the opinion reads. “Unsurprisingly, Maryland has experienced a correlating spike in heroin and opioid-related deaths. Our state, and Marylanders alike, seek tools to combat this epidemic. We are asked to consider under what circumstances the dangers of heroin would justify holding a dealer liable for involuntary manslaughter for supplying the means by which his customer fatally overdoses. The issue is fraught.”
The essential facts of the case have not been disputed at any level. Thomas was both a seller and user of heroin. When arrested at his home following the incident in June 2015, he was in possession of 60 white wax paper bags each of which contained heroin. Each bag was stamped “Banshee” in blue with a blue emblem. Thomas admitted to using about 12 of the bags of heroin per day. He also admitted out of the 60 bags he had recently obtained from his supplier, he sold about 30 for $10 to $15 each and would keep the rest for personal use. Those facts are not in question.
However, on the night of June 25 and early morning on June 26, 2015, Thomas received 28 phone calls and several text messages from the victim, a 23-year-old Ocean Pines man, who had previously purchased heroin from him in the past. The victim made an arrangement with Thomas to purchase four bags of heroin for $30. Later that morning, the victim was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in the bathroom of his mother’s house.
With his body, police found four empty white wax paper bags stamped with “Banshee” and the blue emblem. Also found with the victim was a prescription bottle with the label torn off that contained six 50-milligram tramadol pills, which police theorized he had stolen from his mother. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner opined that the victim died of alcohol and narcotic intoxication.
Thomas appealed the involuntary manslaughter conviction, asserting there was no direct nexus between his sale of heroin to the victim and the victim’s subsequent overdose death at a different time and place. The Court of Special Appeals agreed and reversed the conviction, but the higher Court of Appeals opined this week there was a logical chain of causation.
“The question presented is at once straightforward and weighty: whether the evidence in the trial court was sufficient to sustain Patrick Thomas’ conviction for involuntary manslaughter,” the opinion reads. “We resolve this case in favor of the petitioner, holding that there was sufficient evidence to convict Thomas of gross negligence involuntary manslaughter.”
In the appeal, Thomas argued he could not have known the victim was going to ingest all four bags of heroin he sold to him, nor did he believe the four bags were enough to cause the fatal overdose, based on his own level of consumption. However, the majority of the higher court was not buying the assertion.
“We are not persuaded by Thomas’ defense that the state failed to prove that the four bags constituted a lethal dose,” the opinion reads. “The consequences of ingesting heroin are unpredictable and what constitutes a lethal dose varies based on the circumstances.”
Interestingly, the Court of Special Appeals opined in its reversal last year it was not in Thomas’ best interest to cause one of his steady customers to overdose, but again, the higher court disagreed.
“His conduct posed a high degree of risk to those with whom he interacted,” the opinion reads. “Whether Thomas’ motivation was to create a steady source of income, to feed his own addiction or something more sinister is of no moment as intent to kill is not an element of gross negligence involuntary manslaughter.”
It goes without saying the victim is equally to blame in his own demise for ingesting the heroin that caused him to overdose, a point not lost on the majority of the Court of Appeals.
“That the victim is not blameless is plain, but it is also irrelevant to our present analysis,” the opinion reads. “Assuredly, the victim paid the ultimate price for his conduct. The only remaining question is whether Thomas too should be held to our most minimal level of criminal homicide culpability — involuntary manslaughter — in the death of the victim. We hold that there is sufficient evidence in the record to conclude that Thomas’ conduct was both the actual and legal cause of the victim’s death.”
Again, the Court of Appeals voted 4-3 to reverse the lower appeals court’s decision. The dissenting opinion authored by Judge Michele Hotten and supported by two other judges asserts there was no nexus between Thomas’ sale of heroin to the victim and the victim’s unfortunate overdose death.
“I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion,” the dissenting opinion reads. “The consequences of opioid use in our state can only be characterized as an epidemic, claiming responsibility for 86% of all alcohol and drug-related deaths in Maryland in 2015. The majority opinion seeks refuge in these statistics to support its conclusion that an individual who does nothing more than sell heroin to another can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter when the buyer, on their own volition, injects the heroin and overdoses. I am unable to reach the same conclusion.”