To say that Ashley Sparks, a Drake Law 3L, has been busy this summer is an understatement. Sparks works for the Story County Attorney’s Office and in her spare time, she is assisting criminal defense attorney, Angela Campbell, with her brief for upcoming United States Supreme Court arguments.
The Case, Burrage v. U.S., pertains to a small part of federal statute (21 USC § 841(b)(1)(C)), which holds drug distributors liable for the deaths of those who use the drugs in which they distribute. In this case, the defendant sold heroin to a man who died when he used the drug; however, there were several drugs in his system and experts at his trial did not testify that he died from a heroin overdose, but only that he died from a “mixed drug intoxication.”
The jury found the defendant guilty after receiving an instruction that they could do so if they found that the defendant “contributed to” the death to satisfy the element of “resulting in death.” This instruction was given over the objection of the defendant who argued for a “proximate cause” instruction. Therefore, the issues on appeal are whether section 841 is a strict liability crime (without a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement) and whether a person can be convicted for distribution of heroin causing death through an instruction using “contributing to” language when the cause of death is a mixed drug intoxication.
Sparks is responsible for a specific area of the brief that requires her to research other federal statutes that contain language similar to “death resulting from” and exploring jury instructions given with those statutes, as well as looking into legislative histories to see if there is mention of the intended meaning of that language. In addition, Sparks has been involved in conversations about the flow of the brief, the primary arguments, and reviewing drafts of other sections of the brief. Sparks plans to travel with Ms. Campbell to surrounding law schools for practice arguments and perhaps D.C. for Supreme Court arguments this fall.
Sparks stated that “Drake Law School was definitely involved in me being part of this experience. The opportunity to work with Ms. Campbell came about as a result of me working in the Drake Law Criminal Defense Clinic with Professor Rigg. I enjoyed my work there, and I enjoyed working for Professor Rigg. Near the end of the semester, Professor Rigg ran into Campbell and spoke with her about the case and her needing someone to do research for her. Professor Rigg presented me with the opportunity and I jumped on it. I fully understand that having a chance to be involved with a case that is going before the United States Supreme Court is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Additionally, Drake is located in a city with both state and federal courts, so both state and federal internship opportunities are available to students. Many local attorneys are on federal court appointment lists. If Drake did not have this location, it is unlikely that I would have a chance to work on a federal case going before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“Personally, I have gained several things from the experience,” said Sparks. “This is an opportunity that rarely comes along, and it has been incredibly intriguing to see the federal appellate process at work. It is much different from the state process. I am learning about filing merits briefs, amicus committees, preparing for arguments, and the procedural aspects of the federal appeals process. Additionally, I have a chance to continue to improve in research and writing as I attempt to search for and sift through substantial amounts of case law, jury instructions, and legislative history, under circumstances where accuracy and thoroughness is incredibly important. Overall, this has been a great opportunity, and I am sure that I will continue to gain valuable skills and insight over the next few months as the appeal proceeds.”