|Wednesday, August 29, 2001
|Murder conviction is thought to be the country's first involving the drug
OxyContin dealer gets 13 1/2 -year term in killing
|The judge declined to reduce the murder charge against Robert Stallard to manslaughter after Stallard gave yet another account of what happened.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
TAZEWELL - An OxyContin dealer who sold what proved to be a fatal dose of the prescription painkiller was sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison Tuesday.
Robert Stallard was found guilty of felony murder in what is thought to be the country's first murder conviction involving the distribution of OxyContin, a potent narcotic that can be a blessing for people in pain and a curse for those who abuse it.
The fatal overdose that Stallard caused was one of 55 since 1997 in Western Virginia in which oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, was either the primary cause of death or a contributing factor, according to the state medical examiner's office.
Abuse of the drug has also caused rampant crime in the coalfields of far Southwest Virginia. "This is distribution of OxyContin, which has wreaked havoc on our community," Tazewell County Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Lee said in asking for a substantial prison sentence.
Stallard had faced a maximum punishment of 81 years for felony murder and two other charges - distributing OxyContin to his friend, Nicholas Dickerson, and then disposing of his body in a panic after Dickerson overdosed at the kitchen table of Stallard's Richlands apartment.
Going into a daylong trial in Tazewell County Circuit Court, Stallard had also faced the prospect of having the murder charge reduced to manslaughter.
But after the 43-year-old gave the sixth different account of what happened the night of Sept. 3, Judge Donald Mullins found him guilty of the more serious charge.
"Why, if you were a friend of Nicholas Dickerson, wouldn't you come in here and tell it like it is, tell it like it was, show your remorse and take your medicine?" the judge asked Stallard, adding that the sentence would have been less had he done so.
Stallard received a total sentence of 20 years and six months, but Mullins suspended seven years .
After both admitting and denying earlier that he helped Dickerson inject OxyContin into his arm, Stallard settled on a different version Tuesday. "I'm not saying I did, and I'm not saying I didn't," he said. "I don't remember what happened."
Shortly before midnight Sept. 3, Stallard called 911 and reported that while taking out the trash he had seen a man lying on his lawn.
Dickerson was pronounced dead at the scene, and an autopsy later found needle marks on his arm and a lethal amount of oxycodone in his blood. Stallard first denied seeing his friend that night, then said he had come by to visit, then admitted that he injected the drug into Dickerson's arm as they sat at his kitchen table.
Although Stallard has steadfastly denied selling drugs to Dickerson, a neighbor testified Tuesday that he saw him sell a 40 mg OxyContin pill to the victim. Harry Harrison said Stallard then crushed the pill between two spoons, dissolved the powder into water, drew the solution into a large needle and injected the drug into Dickerson's arm at his request.
The amount of OxyContin later detected in Dickerson's bloodstream was consistent with such a scenario, Assistant Chief Medical Examiner William Massello testified. Dickerson also had a 0.13 percent blood-alcohol level at the time of his death, Massello said, and there were traces of morphine and hydrocodone in his system.
Earlier this year, defense attorney Penny Nimmo sought a second opinion from an independent forensic pathologist, hoping to show that OxyContin alone was not the cause of death. But Dr. Joseph Vallo said the other drugs were not factors in Dickerson's death.
Vallo and Massello agreed that while alcohol may have been a factor, Dickerson would be alive but for his OxyContin use.
In her closing arguments, Nimmo suggested that her client was not the only one at fault. Doctors who overprescribe the drug - which has been hailed as a godsend to cancer patients and others who suffer severe chronic pain - are also to blame, she said.
Abuse of the drug occurs when it leaves the medicine cabinets of legitimate patients and falls into the hands of addicts who crush the pills into a powder that is then snorted or mixed with water and injected.
When doctors are too liberal with prescriptions, "they, too, have some responsibility," Nimmo said.
It was unclear how Stallard obtained the drug. He denied he had ever used OxyContin, despite records to the contrary from some of his 23 admissions to a drug treatment center, where officials reported that he told them he regularly drank a case of beer a day in addition to shooting up OxyContin.
Since a grand jury indicted Stallard last year, at least one other accused OxyContin supplier has been charged with murder. In Jupiter, Fla., a doctor was charged last month with first-degree murder and drug trafficking after four of his patients died from overdoses of the prescription painkiller.