|Thursday, October 10, 2002
|Harless Fitzgerald Rose convicted of capital murder of Coeburn grocer
Jury recommends life sentence for OxyContin addict
|The defense argued that the addiction impaired Rose to the point that he could think only of funding his next fix.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
A Wise County jury decided Wednesday to spare the life of an Oxy- Contin addict who robbed and killed a grocer to fund his next fix.
The jury recommended a sentence of life in prison plus 38 years for Harless Fitzgerald Rose.
A formal sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 27.
It was the first capital murder conviction in Virginia involving abuse of OxyContin, a potent painkiller that has brought big-city problems to small towns such as Coeburn, where a masked robber gunned down grocery store manager Timothy Hughes the night of Oct. 5, 2000.
Prosecutors had sought a death sentence for Rose.
The 34-year-old was portrayed during a 13-day trial in Wise County Circuit Court as a man so addicted to OxyContin that he would do anything to get money to support his habit.
"It became the thing upon which all his waking hours were organized," said William Stejskal, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense that Rose's addiction likely impaired his thinking the night Hughes was shot during a robbery outside the Payless Supermarket.
Although abuse of OxyContin has run rampant in Wise County and other parts of far Southwest Virginia, law enforcement officials say violent crimes linked to the painkiller are less common than with other drugs, such as crack.
"OxyContin works like heroin. It's a depressor of the central nervous system, so it would not incite violence," said Laura DiCesare, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
More often than not, addicts rob pharmacies of their OxyContin supplies without resorting to bloodshed. "These people seem to just want the drug, and they're not interested in hurting anyone," DiCesare said.
Murder charges have been brought against others who provided lethal doses of OxyContin. But Rose is the first person in Virginia - and possibly the country - to be convicted of capital murder for a deliberate killing involving the painkiller, according to Gregg Wood, who monitors OxyContin abuse as a health fraud investigator in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Roanoke.
Some attribute the relatively low level of violent crime associated with OxyContin abuse to the fact that it is most prevalent in rural areas. The wide-open spaces of Wise, Lee and Tazewell counties are unlikely places for turf battles and drug gang rivalries.
Because OxyContin is readily available as a prescription drug, addicts don't necessarily need to resort to violence to obtain it, according to special agent L.W. Findley, who investigates prescription drug abuse for the Virginia State Police in Salem.
Doctor shopping, or the practice of feigning ailments to multiple physicians, is the main method of illegally obtaining OxyContin, police say. Once the drug falls into the wrong hands, the pills are crushed into a powder that is snorted or injected for an intense high similar to that of heroin.
Areas hard hit by OxyContin abuse have experienced increased property crimes as addicts steal to support their addictions.
And as illustrated by Rose's case, violence is by no means unheard of.
Several Wise County residents testified that they have watched their backs more closely since Hughes was fatally shot as he attempted to make a night deposit at the bank next to the Payless Supermarket in Coeburn.
"I think people here are learning to be afraid of what they have never been afraid of before," said Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Gilliam, who prosecuted the case.
The fact that Rose's life revolved around OxyContin should not excuse what he did, Gilliam told the jury. "OxyContin didn't come around the corner of the bank with a loaded revolver; that was Harless Rose," he said.
But drug abuse did explain Rose's actions and was enough of a mitigating factor to justify a life sentence, defense attorney Stephen Kalista said.
The defense argued that Rose's problems with drugs stemmed from his horrible upbringing. Witnesses testified that Rose was an unwanted child, shuffled from one relative's home to another. As a toddler, he was once thrown outdoors in weather so cold that his diapers froze to his body.
Family members testified that Rose was routinely locked in a closet, and that he was once forced to drink his own urine after wetting the bed. Child abuse led to drug abuse, the defense argued in seeking mercy for the victim of both.