A Fayette County coroner’s jury recommended Thursday that the manner of death for a man who was allegedly given a fatal overdose of heroin be changed from accidental to homicide.
The recommendation followed a coroner’s inquest into the September 2013 death of Brian Johnson, 41, at his Belle Vernon residence.
Johnson’s death initially was deemed an accidental overdose.
The jury recommended that in the future, deaths of a similar nature undergo additional investigation by the coroner’s office.
Dr. Phillip Reilly said the recommendation means his office likely will conduct inquests into overdose deaths “where the facts were cloudy and difficult to sort, or where testimony under oath would be helpful.”
In October, Southwest Regional Police charged Johnson’s roommate, Terrence Lee Kelly, 42, with drug delivery resulting in death, aggravated assault, heroin possession with intent to deliver, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.
They said Kelly injected an overdose of heroin into Johnson’s arm at their home, threw the syringe into the Monongahela River and then went to a local bar.
Kelly’s case will be District Attorney Jack Heneks’ first attempt at prosecuting the charge of drug delivery resulting in death.
The law was amended in 2011 by Gov. Tom Corbett to clarify that drug delivery resulting in death can be prosecuted as third-degree homicide when a person intentionally administers, delivers or prescribes drugs to a person who dies from an overdose.
Reilly said the amendment and the jury’s recommendation marks “not a new era, but a new responsibility” for his office and police investigators.
Jurors heard from Southwest Regional Lt. Steven Schwartz, who testified Kelly told him he purchased the heroin for both men. When Johnson, who had not previously used heroin, could not inject the drug on his own, Kelly helped him, Schwartz testified.
“He took the syringe, found a vein and plunged the syringe for Mr. Johnson,” Schwartz testified.
Kelly’s attorney, Michael Petro of Pittsburgh, asked jurors not to change the manner of death to homicide, because such a finding should be left to medical experts. He argued a toxicology report found Johnson had ingested drugs other than heroin, but Reilly said only the heroin level was lethal.
“But for the administration of heroin, Mr. Johnson would still be alive,” Assistant District Attorney Anthony Iannamorelli argued.
Kelly awaits a preliminary hearing. He is in the Fayette County Prison in lieu of $75,000 bond.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].