COA: Trial court didn’t properly instruct jury in drug-induced homicide case

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A trial court’s erroneous decision to reject a defendant’s proposed preliminary instructions has led to the reversal of the defendant’s drug dealing conviction. But the Court of Appeals of Indiana left open the possibility of a retrial due to other significant evidence, including evidence of text messages sent and received by a man who died of a drug overdose.

In 2019, Tyler Humphrey was a 23-year-old student at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis. He had been diagnosed with social anxiety and depression, and doctors had prescribed Xanax and Lexapro.

On Feb. 8, 2019, Humphrey texted Bryan Kavensky that he was “fiending,” a term for experiencing drug withdrawal.  Kavensky informed Humphrey he could buy heroin from Justin Yeary.

Humphrey got Yeary’s phone number from Kavensky, then agreed to visit Yeary’s home in Noblesville to buy two grams of heroin, which he would split with Kavensky. A little after 6:30 p.m., Humphrey texted Yeary, “Sniffed half a point and I have no words[.] Except for holy s*** I am high on drugs[.]”

Later, Humphrey, his sister and his mother, Geralyn, spent the evening watching television and eating cookies in the living room. Geralyn testified that her son was “fine” and acted “normal” throughout the evening. When Humphrey’s father, Michael, arrived home around 11:30 p.m., he saw his son sleeping in his bedroom.

But around 3:30 p.m. the next day, Geralyn opened Humphrey’s door and saw him slumped over.

Humphrey did not have a pulse when Zionsville police arrived. An officer began to assist with CPR and administered Naloxone, but those efforts were unsuccessful and Humphrey died at the scene.

A toxicology report indicated Humphrey had therapeutic levels of Xanax and an antidepressant in his system at the time of his death, as well as an elevated level of fentanyl. The report did not indicate Humphrey had any heroin in his system.

Dr. Thomas Sozio, a forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on Humphrey, concluded the cause of death was “acute fentanyl, citalopram, and alprazolam intoxication … The combination of all three of those drugs together caused an intoxicated state resulting in respiratory depression and cardiac arrest or his heart stopping.”

About two months later, the state charged Yeary with Level 4 felony dealing in a narcotic drug. The charging information was later amended to include a charge of Level 1 felony dealing in a controlled substance resulting in death, known as drug-induced homicide.

Yeary filed a motion to dismiss the DIH count, arguing the state statute was unconstitutional under both the U.S. and Indiana constitutions. But the Hamilton Superior Court dismissed the motion, and the Court of Appeals refused to accept jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal.

At a subsequent pretrial hearing, the state objected to two of Year’s proposed preliminary instructions, which addressed the definitions of “cause-in-fact,” “proximate cause” and “intervening or overriding cause.” The court took the objections under advisement.

At his jury trial in March 2021, Yeary renewed both his motion to dismiss and his request for proposed preliminary jury instructions. The trial court denied both motions.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on both counts, and the trial court entered judgment of conviction as to the DIH count. Yeary was sentenced to 35 years, with 25 years executed in the Indiana Department of Correction, three years served in community corrections and the remaining seven years suspended, with four of those years served on probation.

On appeal, Yeary raised multiple issues, including:

  • Whether Indiana Code § 35-42-1-1.5, the DIH statute, violates the United States Constitution and/or the Indiana Constitution.
  • Whether the trial court erred in refusing to give Yeary’s proposed jury instructions on causation.
  • Whether the text messages the victim sent in the days prior to his death were relevant to Yeary’s defense.

On the first point, Yeary argued subsection (d) of the DIH statute so waters down the causation element of the DIH offense as to effectively relieve the state of the burden of proving a causal connection. The COA disagreed.

“Indiana’s DIH statute does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as Yeary has alleged, because it does not relieve the State of the burden of proving causation,” Judge Melissa May wrote, pointing to Pattison v. State, 54 N.E.3d 361 (Ind. 2016).

Yeary also asserted subsection (d) of the DIH statute unconstitutionally infringed upon his right to present a defense, but that argument was also rejected by the COA. Additionally, he failed in his argument that the DIH statue was too vague.

But on the second issue, the Court of Appeals determined the trial court erred in denying Yeary’s proposed jury instructions.

“Due to the ambiguity regarding precisely what drugs and in what quantities Tyler took over the time period leading up to his death, the jury’s verdict likely turned on its understanding of the legally required causal connection between the drugs Yeary sold Tyler and Tyler’s death,” May wrote. “Therefore, the trial court’s instructional error cannot be called harmless, and we reverse Yeary’s conviction of dealing in a controlled substance resulting in death.”

While the conviction was reversed, the COA noted the state may choose to retry Yeary due to significant evidence.

The COA also addressed Yeary’s argument regarding the relevance of the text messages Humphrey sent and received in the days preceding his death “because of the likelihood the issue will present itself on retrial.”

The appellate court determined the texts are relevant to the case.

“The text messages point to potential alternate sources of the fentanyl Tyler ingested, and therefore, they affect the probability of whether the drugs Yeary sold Tyler proximately caused Tyler’s death,” May wrote. “Consequently, at least portions of Defense Exhibits G and H are relevant to the issue of causation.”

In a footnote, the COA wrote, “Admission of the exhibits at retrial is still contingent upon a proper foundation being laid, and we do not comment on whether such a proper foundation was laid before the trial court here because we reverse Yeary’s conviction on other grounds.”

The case is Justin Yeary v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-1080.

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