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United States v. Seals

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 15, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Cordero Robert Seals Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: December 14, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa

          Before LOKEN and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges, and MAGNUSON, [1] District Judge.

          ERICKSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         After purchasing and injecting a substance containing heroin and fentanyl from Cordero Seals, J.V. overdosed and collapsed while pumping gas at the Hawkeye Convenience store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seals was charged with distribution of heroin and fentanyl resulting in serious bodily injury in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C), and possession with intent to distribute heroin and fentanyl in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and (b)(1)(C). Seals twice moved for judgment of acquittal-once at the beginning of trial, and again at the close of his case. Both times the district court[2] reserved ruling. The jury convicted Seals on both counts. Seals then renewed his Rule 29 motion in writing which was again denied by the district court. Seals was sentenced to 360 and 240 months concurrently on counts 1 and 2, respectively. Seals appeals asserting that the evidence presented at trial is insufficient to convict him.

         I. Background

         On November 3, 2016, Cordero Seals sold $40 worth of a substance consisting of heroin and fentanyl to J.V. The two men then drove to the Hawkeye Convenience store where surveillance footage captured J.V. entering the restroom with a soda can in his hand. While in the bathroom, J.V. fashioned the can into a heroin spoon, fixed up a syringe, and injected himself. J.V. then returned to his truck to fill his tank with gasoline, where he lost consciousness and collapsed. Approximately 90 seconds later, Seals entered the store from an unknown location, apparently looking for J.V. While inside the store, Seals looked in the direction of the truck and apparently observed J.V. slumped near his vehicle. Seals began to frantically pace for a moment before exiting the building, flagging down another store patron for a ride and fleeing the scene leaving J.V. unattended.

         Shortly thereafter a store employee discovered J.V. and called 9-1-1. Officers and paramedics promptly arrived on the scene. The first responders observed several symptoms of an opiate overdose: unconsciousness, shallow breathing, poor skin coloration, and pinpoint pupils. The paramedics administered Narcan to revive J.V. and, within 20 to 30 seconds, he regained consciousness. The first responding police officer found a syringe, lighter, and the spoon with residue on J.V.'s person. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Laboratory later identified the residue as a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

         J.V. was transported to Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids for observation. While there, his blood was drawn, "about half a teaspoon" of which was sent to the FBI laboratory where it was tested by FBI forensic examiner Roman Karas. The initial screening detected two opiates (morphine and codeine) and a subsequent screening detected two more opiates (fentanyl and acetyl-fentanyl). The arguments in this case center around the acetyl-fentanyl.

         Karas testified that morphine is a metabolite of heroin. He further opined that when an individual takes heroin, the heroin molecules are quickly metabolized so that it is not uncommon to find only morphine in a subsequent blood test.[3] Karas also testified that fentanyl has a short half-life-generally detectable only within two to three hours of ingestion. He also stated that the half-life of acetyl-fentanyl had not yet been medically established. Karas further testified that, due to the low volume of blood sampled and his inability to perform additional testing, he was unable to determine precisely which drug caused J.V.'s overdose.

         Dr. Joshua Pruitt also testified as an expert, concluding that J.V.'s collapse was a result of an opiate overdose. This testimony was based on his review of the medical charts, law enforcement reports of J.V.'s comatose state and his subsequent Narcan revival. Dr. Pruitt also testified that any opiates in J.V.'s system before he injected himself in the Hawkeye bathroom were likely not the cause of the overdose:

Well, the primary issue here is an issue of timing. The timing of onset from the time that . . . the substance was used to the onset of his symptoms was very brief. That fits with the clinical picture of . . . an opiate overdose. If there had been other opiates, medications in the background that were . . . there previously, those would not have suddenly become so active that they would have caused that sort of a response. There had to be something that changed; some new drug introduced that caused . . . those symptoms to come on so rapidly.

         Finally, Dr. Pruitt confirmed Karas's testimony that it was medically impossible to determine the concentration of the various opiates in J.V.'s blood sample but, based on a total of roughly seven minutes from injection to collapse, the heroin-fentanyl mixture was the most likely cause of the overdose.

         II.Discus ...


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