Mike Bailey stood before the man who had sold his 20-year-old daughter a lethal dose of fentanyl and anxiously offered his hand in forgiveness. It was the Christian thing to do, Bailey said, even if it was a bit uncomfortable for the both of them.
“We extend forgiveness to you for the wrongs against our family in the same way that Christ has forgiven our wrongs, even without asking for that forgiveness,” Bailey, a 49-year-old general contractor from Birmingham, said in an Alabama courtroom Wednesday, reading from a letter his family wrote for the sentencing hearing of Rodrigus Lee Pearson.
Bailey read the letter aloud in a U.S. District Court about his heartbreak regarding the death of Ashlynn Bailey, a former University of Alabama student who died of an accidental drug overdose Jan. 30, 2016.
Pearson was sentenced to 20 years in prison as part of a binding plea agreement, said his attorney, Perry Russell Steen. It was a rare case in which prosecutors were able to call for an enhanced sentencing penalty — a minimum 20-year sentence — due to a proven link between an overdose death and the drug dealer who might have sold the victim’s last dose. The minimum sentence is permitted through the Controlled Substances Act, though it can only be used successfully if the drug is the proven cause of death, after a 2014 Supreme Court decision. Essentially, prosecutors have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that no other contributing factor resulted in the death, which can be difficult when a person has multiple drugs in their system, said Robert Posey, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
In this instance, Posey said prosecutors were able to determine that fentanyl — an extremely powerful synthetic opioid — caused Ashlynn’s death, though investigations are “not always able to do that.”
“Certainly we’re seeing more fentanyl in the marketplace, and I’m sure that is driving up the number of overdose deaths,” he said.”
In the same case, Pearson was also sentenced for distribution of heroin, fentanyl and possessing with intent to distribute heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine on dates following Ashlynn’s death, in addition to being a felon illegally possessing a gun. Those sentences will be served concurrently. He pleaded guilty to the charges in March. A federal judge also ordered that he pay $22,893 in restitution to the family to cover Ashlynn’s funeral expenses, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office.
“The proceedings in court for this case demonstrated that it was tragic in many ways for the drug dealer and for the family of the victim,” Posey said. “Under this statute, he’s going away for a good while.”
Bailey said he hopes that the enhanced penalty will be used successfully more often, adding that incarceration can serve as a “rude awakening” for drug dealers whose actions result in overdose deaths. The family maintains a foundation in Ashlynn’s name, with the goal of paying for recovering addicts who are of a Christian faith to attend Highlands College, a ministry education program in Alabama.
“I think he needs to be held accountable,” Bailey said of Pearson. “But I don’t want him to feel any less of a person in God’s eyes.”
That’s why Bailey said he chose to approach him in court. Pearson looked apprehensive, sitting with his defense lawyer when Bailey walked up to the table and offered his hand. But ultimately, Bailey said the handshake felt like “a heartfelt thing between both of us.”
Ashlynn had been in and out of rehab for years due to repeated heroin use, Bailey said, though it was the fentanyl that led to her death. The drug is estimated to be 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s website. Bailey said Ashlynn had been a beloved straight-A student with a bubbly personality before she began abusing hard drugs in high school.
“As a courtroom, it was very somber,” Steen, of Pelham, Ala., said. “It felt more like a funeral.”
Police officers found Ashlynn’s body in a Birmingham house after a taxi driver called police to report a suspected overdose death, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. Witnesses said she had been purchasing heroin from Pearson, and the taxi driver had left Bailey at the home the night before her death. She had borrowed the taxi driver’s cellphone to place calls to Pearson for drug transactions, according to the statement. Through that taxi driver’s cellphone, law enforcement agencies were able to locate Pearson’s contact information.
Confidential sources working with the Drug Enforcement Administration purchased heroin from Pearson after Bailey’s death. On one occasion, sources had attempted to purchase heroin but received fentanyl instead.
Pearson was previously convicted on drug charges in Jefferson County Circuit Court in September 2014 and was sentenced to two years’ probation and a 13-month suspended sentence, according to court records.
Between 2014 and 2015, the death rate from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased by more than 72 percent nationwide, according to a December Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Meanwhile, in Jefferson County, where Bailey died, the coroner’s office reported a 116 percent increase in fentanyl deaths from 2015 to 2016.
“I hate drugs, I hate the effects of drugs, I hate the pain that they bring, I hate how it affects families,” Bailey said. “It’s one of the largest demonic forces in our nation right now, just sent to break a family apart. I hate all that, but I don’t hate the individuals.”
Still, Bailey emphasized that much needs to be done to care for recovering addicts and that the opioid epidemic is “not getting better.”
“It’s a pretty painful thing,” Bailey said. “Once she got on heroin, it was just a matter of time.”