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Man, 20, guilty in heroin death

The jury rejects a first-degree murder charge for the man who gave his friend a fatal dose, but convicts him of third-degree murder.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


TAMPA -- Even before the clerk rose to read the verdict, loud sobs emanated from the dozen supporters of James Rouleau sitting in the courtroom. One wrote "not guilty" on a piece of paper and balled it up in a tight fist, closing her eyes as if she could will it to happen.

A year ago, Rouleau shared some heroin with a friend who overdosed and died. The 20-year-old Riverview resident stood accused Wednesday of first-degree murder, his freedom for the rest of his life on the line.

"Guilty," the clerk said.

But guilty of the lesser charge of third-degree murder, middle ground that could be a harbinger of things to come for the handful of other Hillsborough defendants charged under the same controversial and seldom-used law.

"We are very happy that he didn't get first-degree murder," said Rouleau's mother, Barbara Sidoti. "(But) I still don't have my son."

Rouleau, who remains in jail, faces a possible prison term for the third-degree murder conviction. Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway could sentence him as a youthful offender, which would likely result in a short prison sentence or maybe only probation.

Before the trial, prosecutor Robin Fuson offered Rouleau a plea deal of manslaughter and 15 years in prison. Holloway will make the final decision May 24.

On April 13, 1999, Rouleau and Richard Shouse, who both worked at Crabby Tom's restaurant in Brandon, were snorting heroin at work before going to Shouse's home in Valrico. Once there, Rouleau doled out more heroin.

Shouse, 22, became ill. Rouleau helped move him to the sofa, where he appeared to fall asleep. Concerned that Shouse seemed to be in some trouble, Rouleau rubbed ice on his chest to help wake him up. Shouse awoke, but he was still groggy.

Rouleau, in a taped interview with detectives, said that when he went to work in the morning Shouse hadn't moved, but responded when he said goodbye. That afternoon, Shouse stopped breathing and died on the sofa.

In Florida, anyone 18 or older who distributes a dose of drugs such as heroin to someone who later dies of an overdose can be charged with first-degree murder. That includes injecting the drugs, selling them or simply handing them to the victim.

Authorities dusted off the old law in the mid-1990s, when statewide heroin deaths more than doubled. Controversy has followed almost everywhere it has been used.

Some defense attorneys have said the law is vague and misapplied; others go further, calling it draconian. Many of the defendants charged so far were friends or at least acquaintances of the victims, not hard-core drug dealers. They shared drugs or sold small amounts to one another and did not intend for the victims to die.

Outside the courthouse, several defense attorneys, including Public Defender Julie Holt, congratulated Rouleau's lawyer, John Hooker.

"I think the Legislature needs to revisit this law," Hooker said. "It was meant for the big dealers, not people like James."

With the verdict came speculation that defense attorneys could have more bargaining power when trying to arrange plea deals. Prosecutors may be reluctant to face the possible embarrassment of failing to get a first-degree murder conviction in a string of upcoming cases.

Fuson, who leads the State Attorney's Office's drug division, said he wasn't sure whether the verdict would affect other cases.

He said the verdict suggests jurors want to hold people responsible for providing drugs, but maybe not to the extent the law allows. Fuson said something has to be done about the rising number of heroin deaths in Hillsborough. There was one in 1995, 22 last year. The law can be a hammer to send a message to dealers big and small, he said.

Fuson said he considered charging the bigger dealers but did not think he could prove they had sold the fatal dose to Rouleau.

"Rouleau may not have been as responsible as the bigger dealers, but he was still responsible under the law," he said. "I feel bad for everyone in this case. There are no winners."

Most of the cases outside Hillsborough County resulted in plea bargains to lesser charges, such as manslaughter.

Some defendants received time in prison but nothing approaching a life term. In one case, a judge refused to dole out prison time, saying he wasn't going to ruin another life.

Rouleau's family hopes for a similar result. They don't think anyone should spend time in prison on murder charges for simply sharing heroin with a friend. No one forced Shouse to inhale the heroin, they said.

"My son did nothing to anyone," said Rouleau's father David Sidoti. "People have got to be responsible for their own actions.

-- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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