BRATTLEBORO -- Lisa Johnson died of a drug overdose in a Brattleboro apartment in 2012, and now Chris Akey -- the man who sold some of those drugs -- is going to prison.
But as Akey received a 30-month to eight-year sentence on Wednesday, Johnson's mother asked the court to remember the 47-year-old Brattleboro resident as someone other than an overdose victim.
"Lisa's whole world was her two daughters. With everything in her, she strived to make a home for them," Jeanette Zook wrote in a letter read aloud in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division. "It was very difficult. Her life was very hard. I want everyone to know that she was not trash. She was not a tramp. She was kind, considerate and loving, especially to her family."
Zook added that "eight years of punishment certainly doesn't make up for our loss."
Akey's sentence, however, represents what both Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown and defense attorney Dan Sedon called a fair compromise.
"This is a complicated case," Brown said. "And at the end of the day, this result, I think, is fair and just for both sides."
Brattleboro police say Akey, on Sept. 13, 2012, went to the Western Avenue apartment of James Riccard with the intention of buying prescription drugs from him. Instead, they struck a deal: Court documents say Riccard gave Akey 15 Dilaudid pills for two bags of heroin.
Riccard and Johnson, his girlfriend, snorted the heroin and "nodded out," police said. When Riccard awoke, he found that Johnson was not breathing and called 911.
The following day, police arranged for Riccard to participate in a controlled purchase of heroin from Akey in a Flat Street parking lot. The heroin obtained in that buy matched the empty packages found in Riccard's apartment, and police said Akey admitted trading heroin for Riccard's pills on Sept. 13.
At the time of his arrest, Akey also had 37 bags of heroin as well as a bag filled with a variety of prescription pills, a police affidavit says.
In February, Akey, 32, pleaded guilty to selling and possessing heroin and possessing narcotic drugs. He also pleaded no contest to a felony count of selling or dispensing a regulated drug with death resulting, a relatively rare charge.
Comments by Brown and Sedon at Wednesday's sentencing show why the charge is not often filed. Brown said a trial would have featured dueling experts with differing opinions on what drug actually killed Johnson.
"It's a fairly involved and complicated argument that both sides would be making to a jury," Brown said in explaining the plea agreement, which included dismissal of a manslaughter charge. "At the end of the day, it was important to the state that Mr. Akey take responsibility for his conduct."
Sedon said the toxicology of Johnson's death -- and the nature of Akey's responsibility for it -- would have been an "open question" for a jury.
"There was a debate around the medical science," Sedon told Judge David Suntag. "But there was a question of law here, as well, which is that Mr. Akey did not provide this drug to Miss Johnson. As you know, he provided it to another party, who provided it to Miss Johnson."
After hearing from both attorneys, and after Akey declined to speak on his own behalf, Suntag accepted the plea agreement.
The deal gives Akey credit for 400 days of time served in addition to the month-plus that he actually spent in prison before posting bail in late 2012. Brown explained that Vermont law allows a defendant, under certain circumstances, to receive credit for jail time if he or she is being supervised under court-ordered conditions of release.
That means Akey already has served roughly half of his 30-month minimum sentence. Suntag said Akey should take advantage of any treatment the state offers him.
"There's no question Mr. Akey was distributing heroin," Suntag said. "That's risky business. And with your history, Mr. Akey, you know how risky it can be."
That was a reference to the fact that Akey previously has served jail time for delivering drugs resulting in death. In December 2002, his then-girlfriend, 16-year-old Heather Allamby, died from a methadone overdose at Akey's Bellows Falls apartment.
Akey had purchased the methadone. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in July 2004 and was sentenced to serve 30 months to 13 years in prison.
In another letter read in court on Wednesday, one of Johnson's daughters commented on Akey's record.
"It saddens me that he has not learned from his behavior," she wrote. "In fact, he has knowingly and selfishly entered this ‘profession,' if that's what you call it, despite the apparent risk involved."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.