LITTLE VALLEY — An Olean woman has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in a case that was the first time a drug seller was charged for a user’s fatal overdose in Cattaraugus County.
Chelsea Lyons, 27, pleaded guilty Monday in Cattaraugus County Court to the class E felony count, as well as third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance, a class B felony, and seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, a class A misdemeanor. As part of a plea agreement, Lyons waived her right to appeal and would face, at most, one to three years in prison for the homicide charge.
Authorities alleged Lyons caused the death of 42-year-old Matthew Harper on Feb. 24, 2016, by selling him heroin laced with fentanyl. Lyons was one of three Olean women charged in August with separately selling fentanyl purported to be heroin to three users who later died. The other two women, 24-year-old Danee Ellis and 47-year-old Maria Jimerson, had their homicide charges dismissed.
“There aren’t very many convictions for criminally negligent homicide for someone who sold drugs to somebody. It’s very unusual in New York,” said Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Rieman. “We wanted to set a precedent. ... Hopefully, it sends out a message to drug dealers that we’re going to do what we can to stop this.”
Lyons’ Buffalo-based attorney, Matthew Albert, called the homicide charge “dubious.” However, he said with Lyons facing even higher felonies related to sales and possession, it was best to accept the homicide plea so his client could accept responsibility and “get on with her life.”
“It’s like, even if we win, we lose, because then they bring the sales charges on us and those are more difficult to defend against, in some instances, and those are higher-level charges than the criminally negligent homicide,” Albert said. “The laws are written in a strange manner in some instances.”
Rieman said what separated Lyons from the other women was that prosecutors could prove Lyons knew the drugs she was selling were strong and causing users to lose consciousness.
“We have to prove that their conduct was to a point that they knew or should have known they were giving bad drugs,” Rieman said. “(Lyons) had seen somebody else blackout from it.”
That could not be proved with Jimerson and Ellis, the latter of whom even used the same drugs as 30-year-old Amy Graziano, who died April 28.
Ellis was sentenced last month to one year in jail after taking a plea deal for fourth-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance, a class C felony, and seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. Jimerson, whom prosecutors say caused the death of 23-year-old Ali Childs on March 18, 2016, in Olean, appeared in court Monday for charges of third-degree criminal possession and third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance. The status of her case will be known later this week when Rieman’s office releases its weekly report.
Rieman said she’s prepared to charge more heroin dealers with homicide in the future, and hopes changes in New York state law will make it easier to prosecute dealers in users’ deaths. Laree’s Law, which would establish overdose-related homicide as a class A-1 felony with a potential prison sentence roughly similar to murder, has passed the state Senate but stalled in the Assembly.
Still, Rieman said it’s unfortunate the criminal justice system has to be used in combating New York’s heroin epidemic, adding that many dealers are addicts themselves. There were 825 heroin overdose deaths in the state in 2014, almost 25 times more than 10 years earlier, according to the state comptroller's office.
“A lot of these people wouldn’t otherwise be criminals if they weren't drug addicts, but some people are just sellers and those are the ones we really want to stop,” Rieman said. “So, hopefully, this will scare people if they realize they could go to prison for killing somebody if they give them bad drugs.”
Albert described Lyons as a victim of the opioid epidemic herself: someone who was first prescribed opioids by a doctor after a car accident. He added drug court and probation may be in the cards for his client come sentencing at 3 p.m. June 26.
“If she does well between now and sentencing, it looks like probation is going to be a likely probability,” Albert said. “We thought it was the best way she could get on with her life and start availing herself to some treatment options so she could no longer be a number in the system, but that she could actually get out of the drug scene altogether.”
Rieman said sentencing is out of her hands, and that Harper’s widow will be allowed to provide a victim impact statement June 26.
“It’s really sad for the victim in this case because he had been doing OK, he had been rehabilitating,” Rieman said. “It’s really unfortunate that drugs were so available to him because he had actually been doing pretty well before that. He has a wife and a child, and it’s just really sad that this happened to him.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)