The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A drug dealer who gave a college student opioids to end her life was sentenced to 24 years

(Mark Lennihan/AP)
Editor`s Note:

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

The 20 Xanax pills that Rachel Bandman’s friend had sold her were not enough, she wrote in a text message. The University of South Carolina student said she wanted to die and the medication hadn’t killed her.

“I need more for it to happen,” Bandman texted Anthony “A.J.” Hunt in 2016, BuzzFeed News reported, citing court transcripts.

Hunt, a drug dealer who had dropped out of the university, sold Bandman more of the sedatives, federal prosecutors said. When those tablets didn’t kill her, they said, Hunt sold her 10 oxycodone pills — a highly addictive and commonly abused painkiller — and also instructed her on a combination of substances that would be lethal.

Bandman, a 19-year-old public relations major, was found dead of an overdose in her apartment the next day.

Hunt, 24, was sentenced Tuesday to more than 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to distributing the oxycodone that killed Bandman. His situation is among several recent high-profile cases in which courts have considered whether someone can legally be held responsible for another person’s suicide. It also illustrates a new facet of the rise in dealers being charged in connection with deaths linked to their drugs.

“This case is very different from many of the other cases where dealers are charged in overdose deaths, because it was intentional,” Leo Beletsky, the faculty director of Northeastern University’s Health in Justice Action Lab, told The Washington Post.

Prosecutions of dealers for “drug-induced homicides” have been increasing rapidly, Beletsky said. Authorities filed 717 charges casting overdose as homicide, murder or manslaughter in 2017, compared with 25 such charges a decade earlier, according to data from the Health in Justice Action Lab. (Hunt pleaded guilty to a different charge, but Beletsky said he still would consider the case one of drug-induced homicide.)

Although dealers usually do not know that a buyer intends to kill themselves with the drugs, Beletsky said more overdose deaths are likely intended or semi-intended suicides than are commonly recognized. Regardless of whether a dealer was aware of a buyer’s suicidal intentions, Beletsky said criminally charging the dealer for the death adds one tragedy to another. It also fails to prevent similar actions by other dealers, he said, because the criminal justice system cannot effectively regulate the black market for drugs.

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“In reality, that crowds out the conversation that we should be having about where did we fail this person?” Beletsky said. “Who was supposed to catch her when she fell?”

Hunt’s case also contains echoes of the prosecutions of Michelle Carter or Inyoung You, both in Massachusetts. All three cases grapple with who is responsible for a person’s suicide, said Daniel Medwed, a law and criminal justice professor at Northeastern. These types of cases have been drawing a lot of public attention recently and seem to be happening more frequently than before, Medwed said.

Hunt’s actions differ from Carter’s and You’s alleged behaviors in that Hunt gave Bandman the physical means to kill herself. Medwed said that distinction made Hunt easier to prosecute than Carter, who in 2017 was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself through texts. You’s case is ongoing.

In Hunt’s case, Medwed said, “it’s as if he handed her a loaded gun.”

More than 40 states have laws that directly prohibit people from helping others die by suicide. Many of these laws institute high bars to determine whether someone has overcome another person’s will and caused them to kill themselves, Medwed said.

“What’s conceptually difficult is that you do have the suicide victim who is ultimately making a decision for him or herself,” Medwed said. “And so it’s harder to say that the perpetrator’s conduct directly caused the death when the victim has made a choice — a relatively autonomous choice — to take his or her own life.”

The U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Hunt contended that Hunt’s decision to sell Bandman the drugs was directly responsible for her suicide.

“AJ Hunt’s distribution of oxycodone destroyed two young lives and shattered two families, and we will continue to bring justice to those, like Hunt, whose distribution of illegal drugs results in the death of another individual,” Sherri Lydon, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, said in a statement.

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Hunt told the court at his sentencing hearing that although Bandman was “the perfect girl,” her battle with depression and PTSD made her harm herself and self-medicate.

“The war of mental illness is one of the hardest and least understood wars imaginable,” Hunt said, according to BuzzFeed. “I saw Rachel fight many hard battles, but you can’t fight forever. And I will always love Rachel. I think about her every day.”

Hunt’s public defender, Katherine Evatt, said in court that Hunt had a tattoo of a rose on his rib cage in a nod to Bandman’s middle name, Rose, according to the State. She read a text message in which Hunt told Bandman that he did not want her to hurt herself. She also read part of a suicide note from Bandman that said Hunt “was the only one who understood the pain I was going through.”

Evatt added that her client was 21 when Bandman asked him for help and that he didn’t know what to do, the newspaper reported.

Judge J. Michelle Childs responded that Hunt could have sought help for his friend or stayed out of the situation, the State reported. She noted that Hunt had actively instructed Bandman on how to end her life and had profited from her suicide.

Childs told Hunt that she did not hold him fully responsible for Bandman’s death “because this person came to you as they are,” according to BuzzFeed. Still, Childs told him, he had helped her die.

“It does appear that regardless of what you did, based on the text messages, she was going to get there,” Childs said, according to BuzzFeed, “but you’re the person who is before the Court because you actually did assist, which ultimately led to her death.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Hunt has a tattoo of a rose on his rib cage in a nod to Evatt’s middle name. It is a nod to Bandman’s middle name, according to the State. This story has been updated.

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