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A Greenport man who prosecutors said knowingly sold heroin laced with fentanyl that caused a fatal overdose in Riverhead was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter Thursday.
Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft found Lashawn Lawrence guilty of a lesser fourth-degree conspiracy charge in the case that centered around a Riverhead man who died of an overdose in September 2018.
The fourth-degree conspiracy charge carried a maximum penalty of just four years, whereas the manslaughter charge brought penalties of up to 15 years.
Mr. Lawrence, who has had a prior violent felony conviction and other non-violent convictions, remains in jail on $200,000 cash bail or $400,000 bond, and will be sentenced Oct. 15.
The case was determined entirely by the judge, at Mr. Lawrence’s request, so there was no jury involved. The judge did not comment in court after reading the verdict.
The man who died was Lawrence Yaccarino of Riverhead, who had overdosed two other times that month, but was revived, according to testimony during the trial.
At least four other people who allegedly bought drugs from Mr. Lawrence also overdosed during the same time period as Mr. Yaccarino, but were revived, according to assistant district attorney Tanya Rickoff.
The case was only the third time that manslaughter charges were brought against alleged drug dealers in connection with a fatality, according to officials.
Mr. Lawrence, 35, was originally indicted in March along with two other men that prosecutors said were involved in a drug ring that sold heroin laced with fentanyl, a potentially deadly drug that is being used more frequently because it is cheaper and more potent.
His two co-conspirators, John Brophy, 49, of Riverhead, and Bryan Hale, 52, of Flanders, both pleaded guilty within the past month.
Mr. Hale pleaded guilty to a top charge of attempted third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance, and Mr. Brophy pleaded guilty to a top charge of second-degree manslaughter as well as third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance. He had been facing a 10-count indictment.
Ms. Rickoff said in court that Mr. Lawrence was the ring-leader, and Mr. Brophy and Mr. Hale sold drugs for him, often out of Mr. Hale’s auto repair shop on Lincoln Street in Riverhead.
But Carl Irace, the attorney for Mr. Lawrence, said that the prosecution’s case was built on text messages between Mr. Brophy, Mr. Lawrence and others regarding potential drug sales, and often the messages used nicknames for people and drugs.
In several instances, a drug officer on the witness stand would have to interpret for prosecutors what the text message meant.
“It’s all circumstantial evidence,” Mr. Irace said. He said none of the witnesses testified to actually seeing Mr. Lawrence making a drug deal.
In one case, an undercover officer attempted to buy drugs from Mr. Lawrence, but Mr. Lawrence declined.
Ms. Rickoff said that is because Mr. Lawrence is a “smart businessman” and tried to insulate himself.
She pointed out how some of the text messages between Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Brophy refer to “we” and not “I.”
In both her opening and closing statements, Mr. Rickoff pointed out that forensics experts found fentanyl in the heroin Mr. Lawrence sold. She said he knew that the heroin contained fentanyl and could kill people, but he sold it anyway.
Mr. Irace said Mr. Yaccarino had a history of overdoses and drug use, and also took medication for high blood pressure, bipolar disorder and other ailments and that he suffered from obesity.
In addition, Suffolk County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan testified that an amount of cocaine that could kill someone was found in Mr. Yaccarino’s body.
Mr. Irace said Mr. Lawrence was not charged with selling cocaine.
Following the verdict, Antoine Lawrence, Lashawn’s brother, offered condolences for Mr. Yaccarino’s family, but added, “I do respect the court system but I don’t think justice was done.”
He cited the prosecution’s initial claim that the case would center on purple bags the heroin was packaged in, but that by the end of the trial, Ms. Rickoff said it wasn’t about the purple envelopes.
He also pointed out that cocaine was found in Mr. Yaccarino’s system, although his brother was not accused of selling cocaine.
Joanne Needham of Shirley, herself a recovering drug user who lived with Mr. Yaccarino for 10 years, said of the ruling, “It is what it is. It’s a hard thing to prove. I think it was fair, they didn’t prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Correction: The top charge Mr. Brophy pleaded guilty to was second-degree manslaughter.