The first day in the jury trial of a Hillsboro woman charged with involuntary manslaughter after her alleged involvement in a Fentanyl overdose death came to a close Wednesday with one more state witness slated to testify Thursday morning.
Tracey O’Cull, 40, was originally indicted in June 2016 on one count of involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, and one count of corrupting another with drugs, a second-degree felony, after Benjamin Hahn overdosed and died in December 2015 from drugs allegedly sold to him by O’Cull.
The case was set for trial and dismissed twice due to issues with discovery and an error in the indictment.
O’Cull was reindicted on the same charges for the third time in March, and appeared in court for her trial Wednesday alongside defense attorney Susan Zurface.
After a lengthy jury selection process Wednesday morning, the jury heard from a large pool of witnesses, including Benjamin Hahn’s mother and several friends, various law enforcement officers, and expert witnesses including doctors from the Highland and Montgomery County coroner’s offices, as well as an analyst from the Bureau of Criminal Investigaion.
Det. Sgt. Randy Sanders with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office is set to be the last witness for the state, and his testimony is expected to take more than an hour, according to Highland County Prosecuting Attorney Anneka Collins.
Judge Rocky Coss told jurors that Sanders’ testimony will build a foundation for the state’s case.
In her opening argument Wednesday, Collins told jurors what she believed to be the timeline of events leading up to Hahn’s death.
Hahn was in Kentucky doing construction work for a Hillsboro contractor on Dec. 19, Collins said, and, while on his way back to Hillsboro, Hahn allegedly reached out to several people about obtaining drugs – one of whom was O’Cull, who offered to sell Hahn four capsules of heroin.
According to Collins’ narrative, O’Cull came to Hahn’s parents’ home and sold him the drugs. The next morning, Hahn’s mother found him dead in his bedroom, Collins said.
Zurface countered Collins’ argument by saying the state had no evidence showing O’Cull went to Hahn’s parents’ house and sold him drugs, adding that O’Cull had no means of getting to Hahn’s parents’ house.
Zurface told the jury to pay close attention to the facts and not be swayed by the high emotions of the case.
“Don’t let the state play on your sympathies,” she said.
The first witness called to the stand was Hahn’s mother, Jean Peercy, who said the last time she saw Hahn before his death was around 11:30 p.m. the night officials believe he died.
Peercy said Hahn went outside to get some clothes out of a recreational vehicle parked on the property, and she went to bed before he came back inside.
When she found his body in the morning, Peercy said she had trouble opening his bedroom door because he had collapsed in front of it.
Highland County Coroner Dr. Jeff Beery placed Hahn’s time of death between 11:30 p.m. Dec. 19 and 1 a.m. Dec. 20.
Montgomery County deputy coroner Russell Uptegrove testified as an expert witness 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.
After a legal issue was resolved regarding publication of evidence, Collins called to the stand Kyle Combs, a childhood friend of Hahn’s who said he had used drugs with him before.
Collins published photos of a text conversation between Combs and Hahn, showing Combs indicating he could get drugs for Hahn, then showing Hahn asking Combs for a ride to “Tracys [sic].”
Combs said he didn’t see Hahn that night, and didn’t have any knowledge of O’Cull meeting Hahn one way or another.
The conversation showed one of the last texts Hahn sent to Combs was, “Save your money bro. It’s not all that,” at 11:32 p.m. Dec. 19.
The last text in the conversation was from Combs, asking Hahn if he was awake around 10:13 a.m. the following morning. There was no answer.
Further testimony will be heard Thursday morning, and a verdict is expected in the afternoon, according to Coss.
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 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.
Collins said most of these cases have been resolved with a plea or a plea agreement rather than a trial, although, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, a similar case in Warren County ended with a trial and conviction in December of 2015.
For further coverage of the O’Cull trial, visit timesgazette.com.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.