Should Fentanyl Dealers Be Prosecuted for Murder?
On Thursday, July 31, a Riverside, California jury found Vicente David Romero, 34, guilty in the 2020 fentanyl-related death of 26-year-old Kelsey King. It was, according to District Attorney Mike Hestrin, “a landmark case.”
Yet, “while the incident represents the first jury verdict in such a case,” writes Los Angeles Times Fast Break Desk reporter Cari Spencer, “it is not the state’s first fentanyl-related murder conviction.”
Spencer is referring to the relatively recent Placer County case where a 21-year-old man pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of a 15-year-old girl whom he had given a synthetic opioid.
District Attorney Morgan Gire prosecuted that case, which was resolved in July. And, according to Spencer, DA Gire was one of the first to chime in when the Riverside County jury came back with Romero’s guilty verdict.
“When we get verdicts like this it reinforces the viability of this tool that we have to hold people accountable who knowingly sell poison to other people,” said Gire. “The fact that it was a jury verdict is significant — this represents the voice of the community … saying this is murder when someone knowingly sells something that they know to be deadly to someone else and they die as a result.”
Prosecuting Fentanyl Dealers
DA Gire comes down on the side of the “Republicans and moderate Democrats [who] have pushed for harsher prison sentences” when it comes to fentanyl-related homicides. In fact, the prosecutor is disappointed that the California Legislature seems stalled on the issue, despite the whopping 30 related bills that have been introduced this year alone.
As Spencer reports, DA Gire also believes “the current crisis is unprecedented.”
“Fentanyl is like nothing we’ve ever encountered before,” he said. “People would lose their lives over the course of their addiction to heroin and methamphetamine and cocaine and we still see that, but nothing has presented the lethality that fentanyl has. It’s changed the landscape. It’s as simple as taking one pill, and that requires a different approach.”
Others, noted Spencer, “remain reluctant to embrace policies that would lengthen sentences and increase incarceration.” That includes Ricky Bluthenthal, a public health science professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, who “has called on lawmakers to embrace preventative approaches over harsher sentencing.”
“We know that we can’t arrest our way out of our illicit drug problems and we know that because we never have and God knows we’ve tried,” he said. “What it’s likely to do is make people less willing to intervene appropriately when something does happen.”
First Fentanyl Dealer Murder Conviction
As we mentioned, Romero wasn’t the first fentanyl dealer convicted of murder; only the first to be convicted by a jury. The first fentanyl murder conviction concerned a 21-year-old, Placer County, California man named Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan, who pleaded guilty to Second Degree Murder in July. His plea agreement guaranteed him a sentence of 15 years to life. From the read on New York Times reporter Micheal Corkery’s coverage though, the fentanyl dealer deserved all that — and then some.
According to Placer County DA Gire, Cabacungan “knew that the Percocet pills he provided to the girl contained fentanyl.” He also knew how deadly it was. “Mr. Cabacungan provided her with the pills, watched her die after taking them, walked away and then sold more of the drugs to others.”
There’s a certain poetic justice to Cabacungan’s 15 year minimum — his victim was only 15 years-old at the time of her death. In fact, Gire dropped a special enhancement charge after Cabacungan agreed to plead guilty. The fact that the fentanyl dealer was only 20 years-old at the time also likely factored into the equation.
Cabacungan’s plea agreement also prompted the District Attorney’s Office to drop felony charges of transporting drugs, possessing drugs for the purpose of sale and meeting with a minor for the purpose of engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior. Sacramento Bee reporter Rosario Ahumada’s subsequent reporting, however, leaves us hoping nobody is prompted to release him even after his minimum is met.
Yes, It Gets Worse
Ahumada first noted that Deputy District Attorney Daniel Wesp said the deadly fentanyl came in the form of a fake M30 oxycodone pill. (Known on the street as a “Dirty 30.”)
Then came the truly unsettling aspect of the case:
Investigators also found an exchange of Instagram messages four days after the girl’s death between Cabacungan and a 17-year-old female friend.
Wesp said Cabacungan told his friend “Can I tell you a secret? I’m gonna delete it after because it’s crazy. You’re literally the only one I told. It’s on the news. Murder investigation. They’re looking for me. I’m pretty sure I’m straight. I left no evidence.”
The prosecutor said Cabacungan told the girl he was “straight,” meaning good or OK. Cabacungan’s friend asked him about “hickeys” he had on his neck, and asked when he got them. “Same night. She died the same night. Cuddling in my arms, she died,” the prosecutor said, reading Cabacungan’s response to his friend’s questions. “I panicked because the cops… cops hate me in Sac, and I had so much drugs and money. It was either my life or hers.”
Ahumada’s report also showed that when corrections officers came to take Cabacungan to court for sentencing, the tough guy refused to exit his jail cell. That forced the hearing to be rescheduled for October 10. When that day comes though, “the judge ordered jail staff to extract Cabacungan from his cell if he refuses to come out.”
Seems the judge want to ensure that justice will indeed be served.
How Should We Deal with Fentanyl Dealers?
As you probably suspect, Romero’s defense attorney had a few post-conviction words of his own. What you might not suspect is how absurd his words were.
“Furnishing fentanyl is dangerous to human life, so is failure to signal a lane change, so is exceeding the speed limit by five miles an hour,” said Duncan. “So under the theory of this case, potentially all those things might be chargeable as murder.”
We at Healing Properties are unlikely to be the only ones who think it was incredibly disingenuous for Duncan to equate a lethal drug deal with failure to engage a turn signal. But how about the big picture itself? What do you think? Should fentanyl dealers be charged with murder? Does it matter whether or not they knew the drugs they were dealing did in fact contain fentanyl? Should the fentanyl dealer’s record factor into the equation? How about whether or not the they attempted to render aid?
Those questions and more are going to need to be answered. And the answers will play an important role in how we treat fentanyl dealers. So far only two fentanyl dealers have been actually been convicted of murder, and there doesn’t seem to be very many who are currently being prosecuted as such. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been scores of fentanyl dealers who were initially charged with murder. It only means that prosecutors either decided to drop or not pursue that specific charge.
One way or another though, fentanyl will keep killing more and more Americans until someone, somehow comes up with the right answers. Let’s pray it’s on the near side of soon.
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