Phat Nguyen, 34, of Minnesota, was back in a Vermont court facing a new charge a little more than a year after police say he caused the death of one of his best friends.
That friend was Daniel Bendz of Hinesburg. Police say Bendz died of a drug overdose a few hours after his 30th birthday party, when he got drunk and took three powerful oxycontin painkillers that were a gift from his pal, Nguyen.
Nguyen initially faced several charges including dispensing a regulated drug which carried a maximum penalty of only 3 years. But prosecutors dropped that charge Tuesday in favor of a new law that carries a penalty of up to twenty years.
"The charge today is dispensing a regulated drug with death resulting which covers any regulated drug including heroin or oxycontins," said Chittenden Deputy Prosecutor Justin Jiron.
Lawmakers passed the law in response to the highly-publicized death of Jill McCarthy, 22. Seven years ago she died of an overdose with heroin provided by her friend Shawn Gibson. He was initially charged under Vermont's manslaughter law. But there were also other problems with the manslaughter law when applied to drug overdose cases.
"The new charge dispensing with death resulting, it's a simpler standard of proof that the state has to prove in order to prevail in the case. Basically, the state has to show that a person knowingly distributed drugs to another person and the person then died as a result," explained Jiron. "So we don't have to show that that person was a vulnerable person. We don't have to show that the defendant knew that the drug was particularly dangerous; just that they knew that they were a regulated drug when they gave them to the person who then dies. So it's simpler, I think, then manslaughter would be."
Nguyen now faces up to 20 years if convicted under Vermont's new state law. But that's only the beginning of his problems.
"Phat Nguyen has been indicted on conspiracy charges relating to a federal investigation of a drug distribution ring in Minnesota," said Jiron. "I think it was January 24th when he was arrested, of this year."
On the federal investigation, he could face up to life in a federal prison on the new conspiracy indictment if convicted.
Nguyen denied the new Vermont charges. He was released on conditions pending trial. He was permitted to return to Minnesota where he must reside on pre-trial conditions set in his federal case.
As for the Shawn Gibson case that triggered the law change in Vermont, that was transferred to federal jurisdiction where the minimum penalty for a drug overdose death is 20 years in prison. Gibson got 25 years.
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