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Rare drug murder case goes to jury

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TAMPA -- James Rouleau took the witness stand Tuesday and told a jury that he was a marijuana-smoking, acid-popping, heroin-snorting drug addict who lied to police when his best friend died from an overdose.

The one thing he wasn't, he said, was a murderer.

"I could have been dead just like he was dead," Rouleau said, holding back tears. "I was just a junkie."

No one claims that Rouleau, 20, forced Richard Shouse to inhale the heroin they shared in April 1998. Under Florida law, it doesn't matter.

Anyone 18 or older who distributes a dose of certain drugs such as heroin to someone who later dies from an overdose can be charged with first-degree murder.

That includes injecting the drugs, selling them or simply handing them to the victim.

Two days of testimony came to a close Tuesday in what is the first trial of its kind in Hillsborough County.

The 12 jurors, however, could not reach a verdict after deliberating for 3 1/2 hours, and were sent home for the night.

They will resume discussions this morning.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Rouleau faces a mandatory life sentence. In Florida, life means just that, no chance of parole. If the jury convicts Rouleau of a lesser charges, such as manslaughter, the sentence will be up to the judge.

The jurors asked during deliberations for the judge to clarify what was needed to convict using the manslaughter statute.

They also wanted to know when the Florida Legislature introduced the first-degree murder statute under which Rouleau was charged, a question the judge told them was irrelevant to their deliberations.

On the stand, Rouleau said he and Shouse, 22 at the time, picked up some heroin from a local dealer. Rouleau put it in a pill bottle, which they decided would be safer for Rouleau to carry since Shouse was driving, he said. Rouleau gave Shouse some heroin when they were at work at a seafood restaurant in Brandon and doled out some more when they went over to Shouse's home in Valrico.

They both owned the heroin, argued Rouleau's attorney, John Hooker, and so the first-degree murder statute should not apply to Rouleau. He equated it to two guys who buy beer together. One carries it on the ride home from the store, but they both tear one from the pack when they get home.

"You can't give something to someone they already own," he said. "That's not distribution."

During his closing argument, prosecutor Robin Fuson said that story departed "conveniently" from how Rouleau told detectives right after the overdose that he had supplied the heroin to Shouse.

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