Sonny Priest’s friend found him dead in his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, the week before Christmas 2016. Priest had overdosed on alprazolam, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl, a medical examiner ruled.
Six months after Priest’s death, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law expanding the state’s first-degree murder code to include selling a lethal dose of fentanyl. The law, which only applies to adults, took effect Oct. 1. Priest’s alleged dealer, Tamas Harris, was eight days into adulthood when Priest died. This month, 18-year-old Harris will go to court an accused murderer. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
Florida law already allowed dealers of drugs like cocaine or heroin to be charged with first-degree murder when their drugs led to fatal overdose. But overdose rates have skyrocketed in the state with the proliferation of fentanyl, a drug up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Fentanyl and heroin are sometimes combined without the buyer or distributor’s knowledge, creating a cocktail of indeterminate strength.
“Most deaths we’ve seen since the rise of fentanyl in Florida have been a mixture of heroin and fentanyl,” said Greg Newburn, Florida’s state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a sentencing reform group.
Florida’s new law doesn’t care whether or not dealers know their drugs are laced with fentanyl. As long as a fatal mixture contained any amount of fentanyl, the dealer can be charged with first-degree murder, a charge for which “the only two sentences available are life without parole and the death penalty,” Newburn said.
In text messages before Priest’s death, he and Harris only discussed heroin. Priest ordered seven bags of heroin the morning of his death, according to texts included in a warrant for Harris’ arrest.
Late that evening when a friend went to check on Priest, he found him dead in his bedroom. A medical examiner ruled that Priest had died from a combination of alprazolam, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl—a dangerous combination. The mixture of heroin with a tranquilizer like alprazolam is a common recipe for overdose, with the two sedative drugs combining to shut down the respiratory system.
Harris has entered a plea of not guilty in Priest’s death. His lawyer argues that prosecutors cannot prove Harris sold the drugs that ultimately led to Priest’s overdose.
In an attempt to prove Harris sold the drugs that killed Priest, police convinced Priest’s friend to text Harris under the guise of buying drugs. “Is this new? I don’t want that fire Sonny [Priest] last got from you,” the friend texted Harris.
Harris confirmed that he was selling a different batch. After the deal was completed, police arrested Harris and tested his drugs. They tested positive for heroin, not fentanyl, according to an arrest report.
Like many street-level dealers, Harris might not have known the exact composition of his drugs, which appeared to vary between alleged sales. But under the new law, alleged dealers like Harris could be charged with murder regardless of their intent or lack of intent to sell fentanyl.
“One of the problems with the bill is there’s no intent requirement for any of it,” Newburn said. “The way the statute reads, it’s unlawful distribution of this substance or any mixture of this substance.”
One possible saving grace in Harris’ case is the date of his alleged sale. He allegedly sold drugs to Priest in December, nearly a year before Florida’s new sentencing law for fentanyl overdoses went into effect.
“If the cause of death is the fentanyl, I’m not sure he can be charged with murder because fentanyl was not in the list of drugs that could be listed as a predicate for murder until Oct. 1,” Newburn said. “If it was heroin, or another drug that was already listed, then they could charge it as first-degree murder.”
A medical examiner ruled the proximate cause of death in Priest’s case to be heroin and fentanyl, claiming that the alprazolam and cocaine in Priest’s system would not have killed him on their own.
If Harris is convicted of selling a fatal dose of heroin, he could still face the death penalty. But if the prosecution’s case relies on Harris’ alleged fentanyl sale, he could be the last alleged fentanyl dealer in Florida to avoid life in jail or the death penalty in a fatal overdose case.
Harris’ family has already lost a teenage son. In January 2016, his 15-year-old brother Tamar died when a person fired into his car in broad daylight. In a press conference, Harris’ mother pleaded for the shooter to come forward, while another boy who looked like Tamas Harris cried in a relative’s arms behind her.
Nearly two years later, police have made no arrest in Tamar’s murder, but Tamas Harris could get the death penalty for his alleged role in a death for which he was not present.