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Heroin provider charged in death

Case could depend on high court ruling

Saturday, April 19, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Bridgeville man, accused of providing heroin to a friend who died of an overdose in Canonsburg in January, has been charged with drug delivery resulting in death, akin to a third-degree murder charge, but it may be the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and not a jury who decides whether the charge will stand.

That's because in a similar case in Allegheny County in March 2002, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ruled the charge unconstitutional. The Allegheny County district attorney's office in June appealed Manning's ruling to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule in the matter.

Canonsburg police Detective Al Coghill said he was aware of the pending Supreme Court ruling when he filed the charge Thursday against Adam Wilson, 21, of Springhouse Place. The charge carries a five-year minimum prison sentence and a $15,000 fine.

Wilson is accused of providing Chaz Sullivan, 20, of Peters, with the heroin that resulted in his death in Wilson's former Canonsburg apartment on Smith Street.

Coghill said Wilson told investigators he purchased 10 bags of heroin and gave two to Sullivan. They snorted the drug in Wilson's apartment on Jan. 21. When Wilson awoke about 8 a.m. the next day, Sullivan was on the couch but not breathing. Wilson and another friend who spent the night, but who was not charged, contacted authorities.

An autopsy showed that Sullivan died of a drug overdose and that he had morphine, two antidepressants and alcohol in his system. When metabolized, heroin becomes morphine.

In addition to drug delivery resulting in death, Wilson also is charged with reckless endangerment, possession and possession with intent to deliver heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia. Released on $20,000 bond, he faces a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit said yesterday that his office had conducted two other investigations in which the relatively new charge of drug delivery resulting in death was considered. He could not recall, however, if those charges were eventually filed.

He said, however, that any time the charge is appropriate his office would file it.

"If the crime fits the statute and there is evidence to proceed we will file the charge," he said.

However, all of that could change depending upon whether the Supreme Court upholds or vacates Manning's ruling in the case of Gregory D. Ludwig, 21, of Rochester, Beaver County.

Ludwig was charged with selling the drug Ecstasy on May 19, 2001, to an acquaintance who distributed it to her friends. One of the girls, 16-year-old Brandy French of Sewickley, took the drug that day at the X-fest rock concert at the Post-Gazette Pavilion in Burgettstown. She died the next day in Allegheny General Hospital. County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht ruled she died of an overdose of the drug.

The prosecution charged Ludwig under a 1998 state law that holds drug dealers responsible if a customer dies from using the illegal substance. That law has its roots in the high-profile 1995 death of a New Kensington quadriplegic who had asked a friend, Gloria Highhawk, to shoot him up with heroin.

When the man, Steven Wilson, died of an overdose, Highhawk was charged under a law similar to the one used to charge Ludwig. But in 1996, a state Superior Court panel declared the law unconstitutional, ruling that it was too vague.

The state Legislature responded in 1998 with a new version of the law, now called drug delivery resulting in death.

In the case of Ludwig, who also was charged with other drug counts, Manning ruled that the defendant had no malice -- knowledge that the drug would or could cause death -- a necessary component for third-degree murder. He also said prosecutors made no attempt to prove such a state of mind.

In a 59-page appeal of Manning's ruling filed in the state Supreme Court, Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Michael Streily wrote that Ludwig's constitutional rights were not violated, because he allegedly sold a drug that resulted in someone's death.

"There is nothing inherent in the statute which would confuse an individual or court as to the commonwealth's need to establish causation between the drug delivery and resulting death," Streily wrote.

"Selling Ecstasy, especially to teenagers, is prima facie evidence of a mind regardless of social duty, a recklessness of consequences and an extreme indifference to the value of human life."

Ludwig knew, or should have known, that the drug was dangerous, and that after he sold the drug to his friend she could then give it to others, says the brief, which asks the state Supreme Court to overturn Manning's ruling so that prosecutors can pursue homicide charges against Ludwig.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has four other defendants awaiting trial on the same charge of drug delivery resulting in death.

So, too, does Butler County District Attorney Tim McCune, who has said that if he can't pursue the state charge, he may seek to try the defendants under a federal law of conspiracy resulting in death, punishable by a minimum of 20 years in prison and up to a $4 million fine.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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