Lawrence Myers In The News 2016 Fentanyl “Epidemic”
- September 14th, 2016
- Myers Co Law
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A Collection of Articles documenting the high profile case R v. McCormick in the controversial and emerging knowledge about the potentially very dangerous drug Fentanyl:
Does the dire nature of the deadly fentanyl epidemic demand extreme punishment for the drug’s dealers?
That’s the question facing a B.C. provincial court judge this week as she considers the Crown’s call for an unprecedented 18-year jail sentence for Walter James McCormick, a fentanyl trafficker arrested in a Vancouver police investigation.
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Crown counsel Oren Bick is calling for 10 years for the initial charges and eight for a subsequent fentanyl-related offence that occurred while McCormick was on bail. He wants the two terms served consecutively.
“This is an incredibly harsh and high sentence,” Bick told Judge Bonnie Craig during the first day of sentencing last week.
But Bick said the circumstances demand action.
“Mr. McCormick is and has been a high-level drug trafficker in fentanyl, which is a drug that is extremely dangerous, and he and other high-level fentanyl dealers bear personal significant responsibility for hundreds of fentanyl-detected deaths in British Columbia,” he said.
“I am seeking, in other words, an exemplary sentence in what is an exemplary case.”
Charges against spouse withdrawn
In stark contrast to his highly publicized arrest as part of Project Tainted in 2015, McCormick pleaded guilty in an almost empty courtroom last week to two counts of trafficking and two of possession for the purpose of trafficking.
The 51-year-old also admitted to possession for the purpose of trafficking in a separate incident, which occurred when he was caught while on bail this spring at a hotel in Richmond, B.C., with large quantities of drugs, including fentanyl.
McCormick’s sentencing hearing is set to continue Wednesday in Richmond provincial court, but CBC News was able to listen to an audio recording of last week’s proceedings, which occurred in Vancouver.
Police across Canada have warned that fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs, without the knowledge of users. (CBC)
The Crown has withdrawn all charges against McCormick’s former common-law spouse, Karen Marie Armitstead.
According to a statement of facts read into the record, McCormick was caught during an investigation begun in October 2014 after a rash of overdoses.
An undercover officer posed as a Yellowknife dealer looking to score drugs to take up to northern mines.
One of the initial targets of the operation was observed speaking with McCormick, which led police to set up surveillance on the North Vancouver man.
Searches later turned up thousands of fentanyl pills and other drugs with a street value totalling $2 million.
McCormick was released on bail, but arrested again in May when staff at a Sandman Hotel called police after trying to evict him.
Bick said McCormick was “paranoid and delusional” and appeared to be trying to hide money in a UPS truck when police arrived. A search of his room turned up large quantities of drugs in Ziploc bags.
‘An absolute money-maker’
In calling for a tough sentence, Bick entered into evidence a series of reports about the scope of the fentanyl crisis currently facing British Columbia and other provinces.
He also called Dr. James Kennedy, an expert on internal medicine from St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, as a witness to talk about the effects of fentanyl on the brain and the rise of the drug in both the worlds of medicine and illicit drug use.
Amelia and Hardy Leighton
The fentanyl-related deaths of North Vancouver couple Amelia and Hardy Leighton led to widespread publicity around the mounting fentanyl epidemic. (Youcaring)
On cross-examination, Kennedy agreed with the defence’s suggestion that over-prescribing doctors and pharmaceutical companies have contributed to an epidemic that has ravaged communities and killed hundreds.
Bick didn’t disagree. But he said dealers like McCormick are taking advantage of the bigger problem of opioid dependence to introduce dangerous new drugs onto the illicit market.
He called fentanyl “an absolute money-maker” for traffickers: potent; easy to smuggle because of the tiny amount needed for a high; easily obtained over the internet; and attractive to people beyond street-level users.
“The demand is not for fentanyl, with some limited exceptions,” he said. “People are dying of this drug every day, and drug users who want opioids are not out there saying, ‘I want the one that could kill me.'”
Bick also noted that local and national news outlets reported widely on the charges against McCormick while fentanyl detected deaths were rising along with the public’s sense of outrage.
“His reoffending while on bail in these very heightened circumstances, heightened about fentanyl generally and heightened about his case specifically, is very aggravated,” Bick said.
Harsh sentences ineffective deterrent, lawyer says
McCormick’s lawyer, Lawrence Myers, will make submissions on his client’s behalf on Wednesday. But in a telephone interview, he cautioned against hanging all the blame for a complex societal problem on one man.
“The vast majority of people that are being injured or dying from the overuse of prescription drugs such as fentanyl are prescription drug users, not the street users,” he said.
“Am I excusing Mr. McCormick’s behaviour? No. But in perspective, if you think for a minute whatever sentence you give him is going to deter other people from trafficking on the streets or deter doctors from prescribing fentanyl, tragically, we know that’s not going to happen.”
A judge in Kelowna, B.C., this summer declined to consider the presence of fentanyl as an aggravating factor — as opposed to cocaine — in sentencing a man who pleaded guilty to possessing both for the purpose of trafficking.
Myers said tough stances taken by American courts have proven that lengthy sentences don’t deter drug trafficking. He suggested that in McCormick’s case, a federal sentence in the upper range should be eight years instead of 18.
In tallying the other aggravating factors against McCormick, Bick noted that he received a sentence of 121 months in Seattle U.S. District Court after being convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 2000.
He also received a sentence of 20 months in North Vancouver provincial court in 2012 for a charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Fentanyl was alleged to be in his possession at that time.
Bick said judges don’t have to be bound to precedent in deciding to go above the normal range of sentencing in order to denounce a crime of particular concern to society.
“I’m asking the court for a sentence that is outside the usual range, but that is justified by local circumstances and the need to send a message of denunciation and deterrence.”
Walter James McCormick stepped into the prisoner’s box in a Richmond, B.C., courthouse Wednesday morning with his life hanging in the balance.
He is an admitted fentanyl trafficker.
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And with a long criminal history behind him and an epidemic of fentanyl-related deaths raging on the streets outside, the 51-year-old has turned into a poster boy in the fight for stronger sentencing.
The Crown is asking for an unprecedented term of 18 years in prison.
His lawyer says a term in the range of eight years is more appropriate. He’s asking — if not for mercy — for some understanding of his client in the bigger context of an opioid crisis.
Lawrence Myers said McCormick had a difficult upbringing. He spent the parts of his adult life when he wasn’t dealing drugs or behind bars employed as a steelworker. He saw a co-worker die on the job and suffered emotional consequences that continue to haunt him still.
He pleaded guilty to trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking fentanyl at what the Crown calls a high-level.
Myers said that has to count for something.
“He still stepped up and embraced the responsibility in that guilty plea, which he entered,” Myers said outside the courtroom.
“He is truly remorseful. And I think he has come to a fuller appreciation of fentanyl and its consequences in the community.”
Grainy undercover images
Myers was set to make submissions on McCormick’s behalf, but the day’s proceedings were derailed by other facts of life in B.C.’s provincial courtrooms: a scarcity of judges, overloaded lists and endless delays.
The prisoner stood behind a Plexiglas barrier in a red prison track suit, stretching his arms. He’s a short, stocky man with a full head of close-cropped grey hair.
Walter James McCormick
An artist’s sketch shows McCormick standing before provincial court Judge Bonnie Craig. (Jane Wolsak)
He listened intently as the judge said the possibility of a lengthy sentence and the complexity of the issues at hand would require a day’s arguments. The matter is now set for Dec. 6.
But even with the adjournment, new details emerged about the high-profile case and the Crown’s hope that Judge Bonnie Craig will forge new legal ground by creating a new sentencing range for fentanyl trafficking.
Photographs entered as court exhibits show grainy images of McCormick as a suspect under the watchful eye of undercover police.
The pictures include bounty seized in a search of his suburban home: a money-counting machine; bags full of green fentanyl pills; bills splayed in denominations of $1,000, $100, $50 and $20.
His common-law spouse was originally charged in the case as well. On the day McCormick pleaded guilty, the Crown withdrew the charges.
According to the Crown’s statement of facts, McCormick said “she had nothing do with it.”
Not ‘trying to make an example’
McCormick has served lengthy sentences in the past for trafficking cocaine in the United States and in Canada.
He was identified as part of a massive probe sparked by a rash of overdoses in 2014. Even while on bail, he managed to rack up another fentanyl-related charge, which is one of the offences for which he will ultimately be sentenced.
Outside court Wednesday, Crown counsel Oren Bick said judges regularly consider both the circumstances of the offender and his community in sentencing.
Walter James McCormick money
This photograph of money seized from McCormick’s home was entered into evidence at his sentencing for fentanyl trafficking. (Crown exhibit)
“Everything from the most minor sentencing to the most major one should send some sort of message to the public about the way the public views that sort of offence,” he said.
“This is not that we’re trying to make an example of Mr. McCormick. It’s that Mr. McCormick pled guilty to these offences, comes to the court with a particular background — which is not a good background — committed these offences at a fairly high level and we’re seeking the sentence that we feel is appropriate for this man in these circumstances.
“This is the type of sentence one can expect if one does this and this type of behaviour is one that is appalling to the general public.”
‘Lynch mob mentality’
While the fentanyl found in McCormick’s possession has not been linked to any overdose deaths, Bick has said in previous arguments that high-level dealers bear “personal significant responsibility” for fentanyl-detected deaths.
Outside court, he said there is a possibility that other dealers might be prosecuted for manslaughter or even murder if the facts support a charge.
“In cases where there is a possibility of proving that a drug dealer killed somebody wilfully by dealing a dangerous drug, then the police certainly do investigate those,” Bick said.
Myers said no one is disputing the danger of drugs like fentanyl. But he said sending his client to prison forever won’t solve the problem.
“We have to refrain from the lynch-mob mentality, that is that if we hang Mr. McCormick out to dry that will solve our problems,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean to say people that drug-traffic shouldn’t be punished, it just means that it should be tempered with the understanding and appreciation that as a community we have to take a more enlightened approach.
“Let us not be distracted and think that we’ve washed our hands of the problem by giving Mr. McCormick a lengthy sentence.”