This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register and was written by Anna Bisaro.
HARTFORD >> A federally convicted cocaine dealer from New Haven will serve one year in prison for each person that died as a result of a batch of fentanyl-laced cocaine he sold in late June, a decision made after a tense sentencing hearing in which a defense attorney pushed the court to ask for more evidence before putting a price on a human life.
Frank Pina, 57, was sentenced to 87 months in prison, which amounts to 4¾ years for dealing drugs and an additional three years for three victims who died on June 23 as a result of drugs sold by Pina, according to U.S. District Judge Michael Shea who imposed the sentenced Tuesday just after 3 p.m.
“Courts always consider the amount of harm that was done, even when that harm was unintentional,” Shea said. “I don’t think for a minute that you intended to kill people.”
But, with any drug crimes, Shea told Pina, there is always a risk.
“You took the risk knowingly and the sentencing has to reflect that,” Shea said. “It was not some kind of freak accident.”
The batch of cocaine Pina sold in this case caused 14 overdoses in New Haven, three of which were fatal, on June 23. Initial reports were that there were 17 victims of overdoses from what people believed had been cocaine, but Shea said Tuesday that there were only 14 proven victims in Pina’s case.
Investigators later determined the cocaine had been laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that the state medical examiner’s office estimates will be a factor in more than 400 deaths this year.
Pina had overdosed on the same batch of cocaine laced with fentanyl just days before the incident, according court records, and prosecutors argued that Pina knew it was possible others would suffer a similar fate from the batch.
“The fact that he was willing to do this for $500 (the amount that is believed to have been paid for the drugs), that’s outrageous,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Avi Perry. “It was cold-blooded.”
Perry requested that Shea add an additional year for each victim who died onto the sentence and said it was an amount that was lower than he wanted to ask for.
“A lesser sentence would not vindicate the victims and their families,” Perry said. “There were many more lives that were affected by this.”
Pina’s attorney, Tracey Hayes, hotly contested Perry’s request for an additional year put on the sentence for each of the victims who died in the case.
“The government is asking for three more years, one year for each death, as though we could put a mark on someone’s death,” Hayes said. “I don’t think we can.”
Hayes added that the government had failed to adequately prove that the victims had died from the drugs Pina sold in late June. Hayes said five of the victims, including one of the fatal overdose victims, had been at the same party, and it’s possible they had been abusing other substances.
“I think there needs to be something more,” Hayes said. “You’re increasing someone’s sentence and that was not the plea.”
Pina pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine in August, so Hayes argued that the three deaths on June 23 should not be factored into the sentence because Pina had not been convicted of killing anyone.
But, Shea quickly refuted Hayes’s comments, referencing the pre-sentence report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office and the plea agreement that both provided “direct causation” that the victims died from cocaine and fentanyl mixture Pina and other defendants in the case sold.
Shea said that rulings from Second Circuit justices gave the court the authority to consider fatalities when imposing sentences in these types of cases.
During an evidentiary hearing Monday, Shea said prosecutors proved that Pina had been aware of the dangers of the substance and that it was the fentanyl-laced cocaine that caused the overdoses for the 14 victims.
Pina is not the first this year to face federal drug distribution charges in connection with a fatal overdose in the district of Connecticut. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has arrested and charged close to 40 individuals who allegedly sold drugs to victims of overdose so far this year as part of an initiative to combat the opioid epidemic facing the state, according to Tom Carson, a spokesperson for the office.
Most of the cases this year have been involving heroin overdoses, according to court records. But, Perry pointed out statistics from the state medical examiner that show that between January and June of this year, 118 people have died from an overdose in which cocaine was a factor. More than 50 of those victims died from a cocaine and fentanyl mixture, he said.
In a brief statement, Pina stood and apologized for what happened in June and asked Shea to act mercifully when imposing a sentence.
“I’ve made some mistakes in my life and I’m trying to correct things,” Pina said. “I’m sorry for what happened to people.”
The only time Pina showed any emotion was when his son, Tyler, 21, told Shea what a great father Pina had been to him. Pina wiped his eyes and blew his nose as Tyler talked about his childhood and how hard his dad worked to provide for him.
“I feel like the attorneys are trying to make my dad look like a really bad person, but that’s not the case,” Tyler said. “I feel like he wouldn’t want to put the community at risk if he knew that (the cocaine) was 1,000 times stronger than it normally is.”
Tyler added that others were at fault in the case, including the other defendants in the case: Steven Whaley, 48, Jerome Clay Sr., 55, and Emeth Soloman, 43 — all who have been convicted and await sentencing.
“I (also) feel like it’s the victim’s fault for buying cocaine,” Tyler said. “That’s what happens when you buy things you don’t know about.”
No victims or family members of victims came to the hearing Tuesday. Perry said they were feeling a mixture of anxiety and post-traumatic distress and did not want to appear before the court to make any statements.
Following the hearing, U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said in a release, “This defendant sold cocaine laced with fentanyl creating a lethal cocktail that tragically stole three lives. … His actions reflect a callous disregard for human life and were motivated solely by profit.”