A Louisa County man who pleaded guilty to distributing a powerful opiate pain reliever to one of his housemates was acquitted of felony murder yesterday in her 2007 drug-overdose death.
At the end of a two-day jury trial in Louisa Circuit Court, Judge Timothy K. Sanner granted a defense motion to dismiss the murder count against Matthew Minster, 29, in the fentanyl overdose death of Nicole Brockett. The 24-year-old mother of infant twins was found dead in her western Louisa home on Dec. 26, 2007.
Although Minster pleaded guilty in February to selling Brockett the prescription drug in the form of fentanyl skin patches, the judge ruled that too much time had passed between Minster providing the drugs and her death seven hours later. Minster was charged under Virginia's doctrine of felony murder, which is an accidental killing that occurs during the commission of another felony crime.
Louisa Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Garrett and his assistant, Rusty McGuire, cited case law in which convictions were obtained in drug cases involving cocaine, where the victims died more immediately after receiving the drug.
"We couldn't prove that she died close enough to the time that [Minster] gave her the patches for the court to be satisfied with applying the felony murder doctrine," Garrett said.
According to evidence, Minster, who at the time was living with Brockett and her husband, gave Brockett five fentanyl patches, telling her she could pay him later. Brockett cut a couple of the patches into pieces, and then chewed and ingested them.
The medicated adhesive patches are designed to be placed on the body to deliver a specific dose of medication through the skin and into the bloodstream. When you ingest the patches, however, "you get a whole lot more fentanyl in a whole lot less time," Garrett said.
Brockett was found dead seven hours later on a bed next to one of her 5-week-old twins. Police found 3½ of the five patches unused nearby. Authorities determined she died of acute fentanyl poisoning.
Sold under the brand name Duragesic, fentanyl is an opiate prescribed to treat chronic pain expected to last for weeks that other pain relievers can't manage. It can be deadly if misapplied or used recreationally for its euphoric effect, which could be hundreds of times more powerful than heroin, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
An autopsy revealed that Brockett had 0.18 micrograms per liter of fentanyl in her blood at the time of her death. Garrett said an expert testified at trial that there had been documented cases of overdose deaths with levels as low as .003.
Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1,000 people died in the United States of fentanyl poisoning, Garrett said.
"The scary, sad thing is, laypeople don't know anything about it," he added. "So that's hopefully one of the positive things to come out of this case is to raise the public's awareness of the threat constituted by fentanyl."
Minster faces a maximum of 50 years in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 18 on convictions of distributing fentanyl and conspiracy to distribute the drug. McGuire said the fentanyl patches can fetch between $20 and $40 on the street.
Minster's defense was that he gave Brockett the drugs "to help her out at her request," Garrett said, but evidence showed that he accepted money in return. He previously had charged her $5 per patch.
By Mark Bowes
October 9, 2009