Court affirms Duluth overdose murder conviction
An appellate panel said there was no need to prove an intent to kill when Jacob Johnson helped connect his friend with a fatal dose of heroin and fentanyl in 2018.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has rejected another challenge to a Duluth murder conviction stemming from a drug overdose death.
Jacob Jordan Johnson, 29, of Proctor, was found guilty of third-degree murder and sentenced to more than six years in prison for the December 2018 death of 40-year-old Jacob Jared Borman.
Johnson acknowledged helping Borman, his friend of about a year, obtain drugs through another man, James Philanders McNeary. According to court documents and trial testimony, Borman would contact Johnson every few days and request his assistance in connecting with a dealer.
On Dec. 14, 2018, Borman picked up Johnson and they together met McNeary, also known by nickname "Memphis," who Johnson knew but Borman did not, according to court documents. Meeting outside a Central Hillside gas station, Borman gave McNeary $20 in exchange for a tinfoil package before the men parted ways.
Borman was later found unresponsive inside the bathroom of his Duluth residence. CPR and the overdose-reversal drug Narcan were both unsuccessful, and he was later found to have died from the toxic effects of heroin and fentanyl.
While McNeary pleaded guilty to his role in the crime, Johnson proceeded to trial in January 2020 on allegations that he aided and abetted Borman's murder.
The jury found Johnson guilty, and Judge Eric Hylden in July 2020 denied his request for leniency, imposing a 74-month prison term — just one month shy of the sentence given to McNeary , who had a more substantial criminal history but accepted a plea agreement for second-degree manslaughter.
On appeal, Johnson argued that the state failed to prove that he "intentionally aided" third-degree murder, contending that a person "cannot aid another in committing an unintentional offense."
But the three-judge panel disagreed with his interpretation of the law, saying it was only necessary to prove that he intentionally took part in the sale of a controlled substance, and that that substance "proximately caused" Borman's unintentional death.
"The reasonable inferences that might be drawn from these circumstances are consistent with Johnson's guilt and inconsistent with any other rational hypothesis," Judge Renee Worke wrote. "This evidence forms a 'complete chain' showing that Johnson played a substantial role in bringing about (Borman's) death, because it shows that Johnson was the connection between (Borman) and Memphis."
The use of so-called "drug-induced homicide" laws has become a controversial topic in the Northland and across the country in recent years. Locally, there have been more than a dozen such cases opened in recent years, with nearly all resulting in a conviction and prison sentence.
Police and prosecutors have said the laws are meant to hold people accountable for dealing deadly substances and fight the tide of the opioid epidemic. But critics argue that such prosecutions have little to no deterrent effect and frequently serve to punish people struggling with addiction.