PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A drug dealer who sold fentanyl to a woman who overdosed and immediately died was convicted Wednesday of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
It's the first time in Rhode Island, since the opioid crisis began, that a drug dealer was convicted of murder for selling drugs that killed someone, according to the attorney general's office, which said it is also believed to be among just a handful of such cases nationally.
Aaron Andrade, 25, pleaded no contest to the charge Wednesday and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with an additional 20 years suspended with probation.
Prosecutors said Kristen Coutu, 29, thought she was buying heroin in February 2014, but that Andrade sold her the powerful drug fentanyl, instead.
Coutu had struggled with a heroin addiction for several years, and had come home from a month's stay in a rehab facility in Texas the previous night, according to her mother, Sue.
She bought $40 worth of what she thought was heroin, and injected it on the spot, prosecutor Jim Baum said. Coutu died immediately and was found in her car a few hours later.
Superior Court Judge Kristen Rodgers choked up during the hearing.
"Her death should not be in vain," Rodgers told the courtroom, adding that the sentence sends a message to drug dealers. "Their actions, putting dangerous drugs on the street, will result in a murder charge."
Coutu's mother said outside court that she didn't know if the sentence would make a difference in the opioid crisis, but she hoped it would.
"There is so much heroin and fentanyl that's flowing through the state and every state right now. It's hard to say if it will make a difference with just one person," she said. "I would think if you are a small-time drug dealer, you would think twice before selling again."
Asked if the sentence would set a precedent moving forward, Baum replied, "I certainly hope so. That's why we did it."
The attorney general's office said getting a murder conviction in such a case is difficult, and there few other cases they could find of similar convictions nationally. A woman in Tennessee pleaded guilty in September to facilitation of second-degree murder for supplying the heroin that killed a man, and she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In the Rhode Island case, they had cellphone evidence and other evidence that linked Andrade to the address, he admitted selling drugs to Coutu, and other factors, Baum said.
Stacey Veroni, chief of the attorney general's criminal division, said that in 2016, there were 329 overdose deaths in Rhode Island, and 58 percent involved fentanyl, and that going after people who sell such drugs is a top priority for the office.
"These cases are very difficult to prove and link the dealers, but where we can, where law enforcement can, we will prosecute these cases," Veroni said.
Andrade apologized in court to Coutu's family, and to his own.
"The action that I did that day," he said, "I never meant to hurt nobody."