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Murder conviction overturned in local fentanyl overdose case

Robert Ferguson

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a Cloquet man's murder conviction for allegedly providing a fatal dose of a prescription painkiller to his daughter's friend on Monday.

Robert Todd Ferguson, 53, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison in December 2015 after a Carlton County jury concluded that he was responsible for the death of 25-year-old Paul Duane Mrosla.

Mrosla died from an overdose of the potent Schedule II drug on Jan. 15, 2014. He was a friend of the defendant's daughter, Charity Ferguson.

The opinion issued by the appeals court Monday concurred with Robert Ferguson's claim that his conviction could not stand because it was based on the uncorroborated testimony of his daughter, who was granted immunity for testifying against him. The appeals court noted that Charity's testimony was the only evidence directly connecting Robert Ferguson to the sale or distribution of fentanyl to Mrosla; no one else saw Robert hand over the drug to Charity or accept money from the sale.

"Corroboration is required because of the inherent untrustworthiness of an accomplice, who 'may testify against another in the hope of or upon a promise of immunity or clemency or to satisfy other self-serving or malicious motives,'" the court wrote, quoting the State V. Shoop case from 1989.

In overturning Robert Ferguson's third-degree murder conviction, the three-judge panel noted that prosecutors failed to provide a written brief in the appeal process.

"This is a very serious case," Judge John Rodenberg wrote in a 17-page opinion. "A young man lost his life after consuming illegally sold fentanyl, a powerful narcotic. Because the state failed to file a brief, we are left to construct the state's position from the record as constituted, and without the benefit of focused counterarguments to those presented by appellant."

Court records show that Ferguson filed the appeal through the state public defender's office in March 2016, later providing a legal brief on the issues. When the state failed to submit its brief by an October deadline, the court did not schedule oral arguments and decided the case without any retort from the prosecution.

The court docket lists both the Carlton County Attorney's Office and Minnesota Attorney General's Office as respondents in the case. Inquiries to the two agencies did not initially provide a clear explanation of the situation.

On Tuesday, the Carlton County Attorney's office provided copies of its correspondence with the attorney general's office to the Pine Journal and the Duluth News Tribune, including a request for general assistance sent March 30 along with case records sent May 20 and June 29. However, they never forwarded Ferguson's legal brief, the attorney general's office said, which was required before they would consider helping with the case.

County Attorney Thom Pertler said Wednesday that he was trying to determine why his office didn't send the brief, adding that they are thankful for all the assistance from the attorney general's office over the years.

Pertler said he remains confident with the jury's verdict.

"[We] will be seeking review (discretionary) in the Supreme Court."

At issue in the trial was who provided Mrosla with the fentanyl — a drug that officials say can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

Several people testified during the trial that Mrosla began having a bad reaction to the drug after ingesting it at Ferguson's Cloquet home. He was loaded into a car and driven by Charity Ferguson to his parents' Carlton home, where he died in the driveway.

Carlton County prosecutors successfully argued to jurors that the drug was sold to him by Robert Ferguson, while his defense attorneys contended that it was provided to the victim by his daughter.

Charity Ferguson testified at the trial that she brought Mrosla and another friend there for the purpose of buying the fentanyl patch. The two men divided the patch and ingested the drug, she said.

But the defendant testified that he never gave or sold the patch to the men and said he was unsure how they would have obtained it. Robert Ferguson testified that he began taking the prescription drug in about 1998 to alleviate chronic pain brought on by multiple car accidents.

Sixth District Carlton County Judge Leslie Beiers instructed jurors at the time that Ferguson could not be found guilty solely based on Charity Ferguson's testimony because she was considered an accomplice and had been granted immunity to cooperate in the prosecution of her father.

The jury of nine women and three men did find Robert Ferguson guilty after about four hours of deliberation — a decision the appeals court said was contradictory to the jury instructions.

"The record here is devoid of evidence corroborating (Charity Ferguson's) testimony that appellant directly or indirectly participated in the sale of fentanyl," the court wrote.

The opinion marks a potentially significant ruling in the efforts by authorities to crack down on illegal drug sales.

Prosecutors have increasingly used the third-degree murder statute to take on those suspected of providing heroin, fentanyl and other opioids that lead to overdose deaths. But opponents have said the law, instead of punishing major dealers, serves to harshly punish small-time users who are struggling with their own addiction issues.

The statute allows a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison for anyone who "causes the death of a human being by, directly or indirectly, unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing, or administering a controlled substance classified in Schedule I or II."

Pine Journal editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.