Among the reasons a federal prosecutor offered for why Christopher Massena deserved a stiff sentence for selling the drug that killed an addict — his extensive criminal history, lack of remorse and likelihood to offend again — was the message it would send to other drug dealers.
“Drug dealers know about this case and they are watching,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Nucci. “You must sentence him harshly to let them know.”
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra sentenced the 25-year-old Massena to 30 years in prison. The sentence fell midway between the recommended sentence of 27 to 33 years.
Massena’s attorney, Jack Fleischman, asked the judge to impose a 20-year sentence. “He shouldn’t be held responsible for everything going on in the community,” Fleischman said.
A jury deliberated for 2½ hours in August before finding Massena guilty of selling fentanyl to Christian “Ty” Hernandez on Feb. 19. Within hours of the drug deal, Hernandez, 23, overdosed in the bedroom of his family’s home in Wellington.
The groundbreaking case raised ethical and legal questions about whether an addict should be held solely responsible for taking a fatal dose of drugs. Marra barred Fleischman from arguing that Hernandez was responsible for his own death and that Massena did not intend for the fentanyl to kill Hernandez.
However, Fleischman did raise Hernandez’ role in his own death in asking for a lesser sentence.
“The victim took the risk of purchasing drugs off the street, and failed to take steps to halt his substance abuse,” Fleischman wrote in court papers. “Some accountability and fault should be placed with the defendant.”
Marra did not address the issue before imposing Massena’s sentence. However, Massena’s supporters left the courtroom cursing and blaming Hernandez.
“He killed himself!” one young woman yelled.
In an interview outside the courthouse, Margaret Hernandez, Ty’s mother, acknowledged that her son was not blameless. However, she does not believe her son set out to buy fentanyl, a synthetic drug more than 1oo times more potent than morphine.
Fentanyl can be deadly in small doses and is commonly used by drug dealers to intensify the high. Fentanyl, not heroin, was the only drug found in Hernandez’ body.
“This wasn’t heroin, this was 100 percent fentanyl,” Margaret Hernandez said. “Ty took responsibility. He died.”
While talking with reporters, Massena’s supporters stopped their car in the street and again cursed Hernandez’ family and blamed Ty for his own death.
Margaret Hernandez acknowledged that both families had lost their sons: “One to death. One to prison.”
The case also revealed an investigative tool often overlooked by detectives: the cellphones of addicts.
Police who responded to the 911 call at the Hernandez family’s Wellington home on Feb. 19 thought they were dealing with an overdose and not a criminal investigation. They found three capsules of heroin and fentanyl in a box near Hernandez’ body but they did not take his cellphone into evidence.
For days after Hernandez’ death, a caller named Slim repeatedly called the phone. His family did not answer.
However, Hernandez’ father, Frank, and his brother-in-law — a Navy communications specialist — went through the phone.
The phone revealed 65 calls and 270 text messages between Hernandez and Slim during the month before Hernandez overdosed. Among the messages, a deal Hernandez made with Slim the night before his death to buy four capsules of heroin.
The family contacted detectives and asked that they investigate the calls.
“He left us such a perfect trail,” said Hernandez’ father, Frank Hernandez. An investigation was launched and when an undercover officer called Slim’s phone number, Massena answered and agreed to sell the officer drugs.
During one secretly recorded conversation Massena laughed when the undercover officer told him that one of his clients had overdosed, according to Nucci. “That’s a good thing when they call to say that,” Massena told the undercover officer, meaning the drugs he sold are powerful.