Two co-conspirators who agreed to testify for federal prosecutors in a watershed heroin-distribution case were sentenced today for their role in the 2016 overdose of a Hamilton County Drug Court graduate.
Joshua Corbett and Jessica Rachels will serve 10 years in the Bureau of Prisons and each receive 500 hours of substance-abuse treatment.
Prosecutors say Corbett and Rachels helped facilitate a drug deal between Logan Whiteaker, who had just graduated from Drug Court, and Darius Blakemore, a Chattanooga man who told authorities he'd been selling drugs since he was a teenager, on Feb. 22, 2016.
From the McDonald's parking lot on Rossville Boulevard, Whiteaker then went to his home in Red Bank, where authorities found him the next morning overdosed in the bathroom beside a bag of heroin.
His death came amid a national conversation about the opioid epidemic in Tennessee and in June, a grand jury indicted Corbett, Rachels and Blakemore on nine counts related to distributing and possessing heroin.
Corbett and Rachels pleaded guilty to lesser charges in fall 2016 and faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute a mixture and substance containing heroin. They received a 50 percent reduction today because they were willing to testify for the government against Blakemore during his trial last month.
"Their testimony, to the extent there was any ambiguity [in our case against Blakemore], would have helped shore that up," assistant U.S. attorney Michael Porter said. "This was enormously impactful."
Blakemore agreed to plead guilty to 23 years in prison mid trial, right before Rachels was scheduled to take the witness stand.
U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice must still approve that agreement during Blakemore's next court date on Oct. 23.
Rachels' attorney, Clayton Whittaker, initially argued his client should receive less time because her testimony would have been more valuable to the government, restored public confidence in the justice system since a powerful drug dealer was being prosecuted, and helped restore the reputation of the county's Drug Court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Porter disagreed, saying the government believed Corbett and Rachels provided equal value and that he taken all of these factors into consideration when he gave both conspirators a rare sentence reduction.
Porter said he still wanted the case to send a message: "If people die because your heroin causes them to overdose, then we're going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."
Corbett accepted his 10-year sentence today in the courtroom and also apologized to his family, his friends, and Whiteaker's mother, who was not at today's sentencing.
"They allowed me to meet with Mrs. Whiteaker last Tuesday — and for any way that helped her and helped myself, I'm so grateful," said Corbett, 28. "Since becoming addicted, I've abused relationships. Going from the person I was to the person on drugs, I've learned that the most important thing is love. And as I sit here and look at my family you had to watch me go from myself to a terrible human being who took you for granted. You don't know how grateful I am."