In a case that tested an undeveloped area of Maryland criminal law, a jury yesterday acquitted a 22-year-old Columbia man on a charge of recklessly endangering the life of a friend who died of a heroin overdose in the man's upstairs bathroom as paramedics were downstairs offering help.
The jury's decision, which came after more than four hours of deliberation, followed Judge James B. Dudley's acquittal of Scott Milner Sheldon on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
State's Attorney Marna McLendon said although she was disappointed by both the jury's and the judge's decisions, she believed it was important to try the case.
"We need to sound an alarm about the danger of drugs," McLendon said. "Despite the acquittal, this case has had an impact on a number of lives already."
Defense attorney Joseph Martha agreed, pointing out that Sheldon had been free of illegal drugs for more than a year. But he also said the weakness of the state's case was trying to make an example of Sheldon. "I think they were trying to make a moral statement about the use of drugs and the perceived irresponsibility of youth," Martha said. "But this is a court of law, not a court of moral judgement."
Sheldon declined comment, but his relief was evident in a prolonged hug with his mother.
On March 14 of last year, friends brought Morgan Manca-Wells, 21, unconscious to Sheldon's house. They placed him in the bathtub and tried to revive him, running hot water over him until his skin blistered.
At one point, paramedics and police arrived on a tip that two people were overdosing on drugs at the Wolf River Lane house. As officers questioned Sheldon and others at the residence, no one told them that Manca-Wells was struggling to breathe upstairs.
The state presented witnesses who said Sheldon tricked paramedics into thinking another friend was the one in trouble.
"Where do you think the first thought of Scott Sheldon was when the paramedics were pounding at the front door?" Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad asked in his closing argument. "Was it on the burned skin of his friend upstairs, or was it the thought of his own skin?"
When Manca-Wells appeared to stop breathing, Sheldon and a friend put him in a car, intending to take him to a hospital. Afraid of being arrested, however, they dumped the young man next to a Dumpster across from St. Agnes HealthCare in Southwest Baltimore.
In his closing argument, Murtha insisted his client had no idea his behavior put Manca-Wells' life at risk. He urged the jury to cast aside its desire to punish someone for the young man's death.
Earlier yesterday, Murtha successfully argued that Sheldon's actions did not rise to the charge of "depraved heart" - or second-degree - murder, citing case law defining it as a wanton or willful killing.
Rexroad rebutted with the example of a 1994 case of a juvenile in Harford County who dragged a drunken 15-year-old girl into the woods and left her there knowing she might freeze to death. He too was charged with second-degree murder.
"This is a difficult case, and it certainly begs for prosecution," Dudley said in his ruling, noting the paucity of relevant Maryland case law on such murders. "But under the circumstances, the problem the court has is essentially one of causation."
Dudley allowed the jury to take up the third charge, calling the case "a rather compelling case of reckless endangerment."
In connection with Manca-Wells' death, the state also has charged Brian Jefferson, 25, of Columbia, and Wesley Tyson Hamerly, 21, of Elkridge, with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
In light of Dudley's ruling, McLendon said: "We're going to look hard" at how best to prosecute. "I don't think you can remove the moral component from these types of crimes."
Jefferson and Hamerly are scheduled to go to trial this fall.
Outside the courtroom yesterday, Daniel Cabrera, 22, remembered his friend Manca-Wells as smart, charming, gentle- and honest about his drug problem. The night he died was only the second time Manca-Wells had ever used heroin, he said.
"I don't think he would have wanted anyone to get in trouble as a result of this, but I think he would have appreciated the fact that someone cared enough to at least take up his fight and make people aware," Cabrera said.