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Federal judge overturns Akron man’s conviction for 2015 heroin-fentanyl overdose death

October 2, 2018

Federal judge overturns Akron man’s conviction for 2015 heroin-fentanyl overdose death

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A federal judge overturned a guilty verdict for an Akron man accused of selling a mixture of heroin and fentanyl to a woman who died in 2015, citing faulty jury instructions that he approved before the man’s trial began.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. wrote Monday that the jury that decided whether Jurmaine Jeffries was guilty of selling the drugs that killed Jamie Huffer was not given the proper legal direction before its deliberations.

Bucking court precedent from across the country, the judge said the jury should have also been instructed on “proximate causation,” or that it had to find that an average person would have known it is possible that a drug user could die by taking the drugs Jeffries was accused of selling.

The jury also found Jeffries, 30, guilty of a separate drug charge. The judge left that conviction intact, noting that Jeffries did not contest the charge at his trial in March and April.

(You can read the full order here or at the bottom of this story.)

Oliver’s decision means that Jeffries gets a new trial on the more serious charge, one where a conviction mandates a sentence of at least 20 years in federal prison. The order also frustrated prosecutors, which had tried to keep Jeffries’ verdict intact.

The judge had postponed the sentencing four times. Jeffries was set to be sentenced at 3:30 p.m. Monday, but Oliver had not formally ruled by the time the sentencing was set to begin.

More than 50 minutes the scheduled starting time, Oliver’s law clerk handed copies of the order to attorneys, though she later had to switch out pages from those copies.

Prosecutors and Jeffries’ attorneys asked to postpone so they could figure out how to proceed. Oliver set a status conference for Oct. 18.

For now, Jeffries is out on bond and walked out of court, still a free man.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Tobin declined comment. Carolyn Kucharski and Jacqueline Johnson, Jeffries’ federal public defenders, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Huffer’s mother found her daughter dead in the attic of a house in Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood in September 2015. Prosecutors said Huffer, 52, was surrounded by needles, bags of drugs, pills, spoons and lighters.

Akron police found texts on Huffer’s phone from Jeffries’ number that showed she had ordered drugs from him the day she died, Riley said. The officers texted Jeffries to order more and arrested him when he pulled up to the house a little while later with drugs in his car and in his pants pocket.

Kucharski argued at trial, though, that Huffer was a user and dealer with multiple ways to get her drugs. She said prosecutors couldn’t say for sure that Jeffries was the one who sold Huffer the fatal dose.

Jeffries’ attorneys argued after trial that the judge he should have included proximate causation in his jury instructions, something they requested.

The judge had ruled against the attorneys’ request before trial and sided with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He instead used instructions requested by that government, telling jurors that they only had to decide whether Huffer would have lived “but for” the drugs prosecutors said Jeffries sold.

The judge, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, acknowledged that other appellate courts across the country ruled that proximate causation isn’t necessary to convict in cases involving a so-called “death specification.”

He wrote, however, that precedent from the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not directly address this issue for such cases, and that it had ruled that such a jury instruction was necessary for deaths resulting from health-care fraud.

If you would like to comment on this story, please visit Tuesday’s crime and courts comments section.

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