A precedent-setting trial in Highland County Common Pleas Court ended late Thursday evening with a hung jury on one count of involuntary manslaughter, and a guilty verdict on a drug corruption charge for a Hillsboro woman allegedly involved in a December 2015 Fentanyl overdose death.
After deliberating for much of the afternoon and evening, the 12-member jury found Tracey O’Cull, 40, guilty of corrupting another with drugs, but was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the involuntary manslaughter charge, with 11 voting for a guilty verdict, and one voting against.
O’Cull was initially indicted on those charges after Benjamin Hahn overdosed and died in December 2015 from drugs allegedly sold to him by O’Cull.
As previously reported by The Times-Gazette, the case is new for Highland County, and part of a paradigm shift in the local justice system’s response to the opiate epidemic, according to Highland County Prosecuting Attorney Anneka Collins.
Collins said there have been several cases around Southwest Ohio where prosecutors have held drug traffickers responsible for overdose deaths by charging the trafficker with involuntary manslaughter and corrupting another with drugs.
“I hope it sends a message,” Collins told The Times-Gazette after the trial. “I’m glad that [the jury] took it so seriously and paid attention.”
Defense attorney Sue Zurface said, “While obviously we would have preferred that the jury would have come to a not-guilty verdict on the corruption charge, we are very pleased that they were unable to come to a verdict on the involuntary manslaughter charge. We believe that it was one person holding to their standards and their convictions, and that’s exactly what the jury system is supposed to be about.”
Det. Sgt. Randy Sanders with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office was the last and only witness to take the stand Thursday morning, offering his testimony as the investigating officer in the case.
Much of the questioning centered around sets of text messages between Hahn and his friends in the hours leading up to his death – particularly, messages exchanged between Hahn and a phone number saved in his phone as “Tracy,” which Sanders identified as O’Cull’s phone number since the detective had been in contact with her during a separate investigation.
A chart published during the trial displayed a transcript of conversations between Hahn and that phone number that appeared to show the two arranging to meet.
A text sent to Hahn from that phone number said “I got caps,” which Sanders said was a reference to capsules containing about 1/10 of a gram of heroin.
The chart also showed Hahn saying, “Come to my driveway.” Later, texts from the other number said, “I am in driveway,” and “Here I come.”
Montgomery County Deputy Coroner Russell Uptegrove testified as an expert witness on Wednesday that upon investigation, it was found that Hahn died from “Fentanyl intoxication.”
Jessica Kaiser, an analyst at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation in London, Ohio, testified as an expert that a spoon found near Hahn’s body had fentanyl residue on it.
None of the expert witnesses said there were any traces of heroin found at the scene or in Hahn’s system.
In her closing argument, Zurface said there was no DNA, fingerprint or eyewitness evidence showing O’Cull actually went to Hahn’s parents’ house, and that there was no evidence showing that the phone number in question even belonged to O’Cull – in fact, Zurface said, testimony indicated the phone was registered to someone completely different, although Sanders testified O’Cull told law enforcement in an interview that she was the only person using the phone that particular evening.
“The state wants you to make… assumptions,” Zurface said, saying that the only certain fact in the case was that Hahn somehow used Fentanyl and died.
Collins said the evidence and testimony in the trial showed O’Cull came to the house and sold Hahn the drugs, adding “It’s not a leap of faith… It’s common sense.”
Collins has 10 days to decide whether or not to retry the case. O’Cull will be sentenced on the drug corruption conviction at a later date.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.