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.

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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.


Jacob Jordan Johnson

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.

PREVIOUSLY: Duluth man sentenced to 6 years in drug overdose death The defendant told the judge he came to Duluth to seek a sober lifestyle, but instead wound up using and selling heroin and meth.
Defense attorney Rebecca Shaw argued that Johnson was simply an addict seeking to help out his friend, noting he was not involved in the physical transfer of the drugs and money. But St. Louis County prosecutor Vicky Wanta said Borman's death never would have occurred without Johnson's participation, noting that the defendant had every reason to know of the dangers of opioids.

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."

Jamie Philanders McNeary


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."

PREVIOUSLY: Two arrested, charged in December overdose death A Proctor man made his first court appearance Thursday on charges stemming from a December 2018 overdose death in Duluth, while police arrested a second suspect charged in the case.
The panel additionally rejected a claim that the district court should have instructed jurors that "if (Johnson) received drugs from Memphis and used them with (Borman), he could not be Memphis's accomplice." The judges said Hylden properly declined to give that instruction because all evidence indicated that Borman alone took possession of the drugs sold by McNeary.

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.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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