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Duluth woman guilty of murder in Rice Lake overdose death

Joanne Smith helped Samuel O'Leary acquire the fentanyl that killed him in December 2017.

Joanne Rose Smith.jpg
Joanne Rose Smith

A Duluth woman has admitted to her role in providing fentanyl to a Rice Lake man who fatally overdosed in 2017.

Joanne Rose Smith, 47, pleaded guilty Friday in State District Court in Duluth to a felony charge of third-degree murder in the death of 33-year-old Samuel James O’Leary.

Under the terms of a plea agreement, she is expected to receive a prison term of approximately 10½ years when she appears for sentencing before Judge David Johnson on April 12.

Smith was one of two people charged in O'Leary's death after an investigation by the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office and Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. Co-defendant Deshaun Clay Robinson, 21, is facing an identical charge.

According to court documents, sheriff's deputies found O'Leary unresponsive inside a Rice Lake residence Dec. 4, 2017. An autopsy determined that his death was the result of an overdose of fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that is often added to heroin.

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In a search of O'Leary's cellphone, investigators found Facebook messages exchanged by the victim and Smith beginning Dec. 3, 2017, in which arrangements were made for the two to meet for a heroin purchase, according to the criminal complaint.

PREVIOUSLY: 2 face murder charges in Rice Lake overdose death Police are seeking the public's help in locating one defendant.
Further investigation revealed Smith and O'Leary picked up the substances on the 600 block of West Superior Street in Duluth.

O'Leary's phone had been used to place a call with a number affiliated with Robinson and Lashante Griggs. Video surveillance footage from Griggs' apartment building showed Robinson entering the lobby and "engaging in a hand-to-hand exchange with Smith," the complaint states. Smith then returned to O'Leary's vehicle.

Deshaun Clay Robinson_web.jpg
Deshaun Clay Robinson

On Dec. 5, 2017, investigators executed search warrants on Robinson and Griggs, as well as the apartment. An investigator found two baggies of "suspected heroin laced with (fentanyl)" on Griggs, and her phone included messages leading up to the exchange with O'Leary, which authorities said indicated a sale of controlled substances.

In an interview, Robinson allegedly admitted Griggs had his phone — the one containing the messages with O'Leary. In another interview, Smith said she had arranged the purchase through Griggs, with Robinson delivering the drugs.

Smith was formally charged with murder by the St. Louis County Attorney's Office on Nov. 14, 2018. She has three previous convictions in Minnesota for third-degree sale of a controlled substance.

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Robinson was charged with the same offense in December 2019 and arrested on a warrant the following month in California . He is scheduled to appear for a plea hearing April 19.

Under Minnesota law, a person is guilty of third-degree murder if he or she unintentionally causes another's death by "unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing or administering" a Schedule I or II controlled substance.

Police and prosecutors in the Northland and across the country in recent years have increasingly turned to homicide statutes in an effort to crack down on the illegal drug trade in response to the opioid epidemic.

The tactic is not without controversy, as defense attorneys and academics have said 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 tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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