Riverside County jury convicts man of murder in fentanyl-related case, a first of its kind verdict in California

Kelsey King as seen in an undated photo. (Riverside Co. District Attorney's Office) On Aug. 31, 2023, jurors at Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta found Vicente David Romero, DOB: 2-20-89, guilty in the fentanyl-related death of Kelsey King on June 16, 2020, in Temecula, California. (Riverside Co. District Attorney's Office)
Kelsey King as seen in an undated photo. (Riverside County District Attorney's Office)

A Temecula man was convicted this week of second-degree murder for knowingly supplying fentanyl to a 26-year-old woman who died from the drug, the first jury verdict for a fentanyl-related homicide in California, Riverside County prosecutors said.

After one day of deliberation, the jury on Thursday found Vicente David Romero, 34, guilty in the 2020 fentanyl-related death of Kelsey King, 26, making it a landmark case, according to county Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin.

But while the incident represents the first jury verdict in such a case it is not the first fentanyl-related murder conviction in the state. A 21-year-old Placer County man pleaded guilty in July to second-degree murder of a 15-year-old girl who died shortly after he gave her the synthetic opioid.

Placer County Dist. Atty. Morgan Gire said the latest jury verdict is “incredibly significant” in the movement to heighten punishments against those who provide fentanyl.

“When we get verdicts like this it reinforces the viability of this tool that we have to hold people accountable who knowingly sell poison to other people,” Gire said. “The fact that it was a jury verdict is significant — this represents the voice of the community … saying this is murder when someone knowingly sells something that they know to be deadly to someone else and they die as a result.”

In Romero's five-day trial, prosecutors brought forth video footage of Romero saying he gave and split a pill with King, knowing it contained fentanyl, according to a press release from the district attorney’s office.

Romero, who remains in custody at the the county's Southwest Detention Center, admitted to five additional charges in the case including possession of drugs while armed and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He’s scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 6.

The case is the first of 23 active homicide cases related to fentanyl poisonings to go to trial in Riverside County, where at least 434 people have died from fentanyl since 2016, according to the district attorney’s office.

The highly addictive opioid is considered the deadliest drug threat in the United States. Fifty times more potent than heroin, ingesting just two milligrams of the drug — an amount that fits on a pencil tip — could kill a person, officials said.

Last year, more than 6,000 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses statewide, according to preliminary data from the California Department of Public Health. That’s a 280% increase from 2019, when that number was just over 1,600.

The crisis brought over 30 bills to the California Legislature this year, where a charged fight emerged, dividing lawmakers over how best to hold dealers accountable.

Republicans and moderate Democrats have pushed for harsher prison sentences, while others have remained reluctant to embrace policies that would lengthen sentences and increase incarceration — wary that such legislative moves would swing far away from rehabilitation and devastate communities of color.

Ricky Bluthenthal, a public health science professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, has called on lawmakers to embrace preventative approaches over harsher sentencing.

“We know that we can’t arrest our way out of our illicit drug problems and we know that because we never have and God knows we’ve tried,” he said. “What it’s likely to do is make people less willing to intervene appropriately when something does happen.”

But Gire said he was disappointed that legislation that called for more punitive action in cases involving fentanyl-related deaths was stalled in Sacramento this year, arguing that the current crisis is unprecedented and incomparable to the wave of harsh drug sentences in the late 20th century.

“Fentanyl is like nothing we’ve ever encountered before,” he said. “People would lose their lives over the course of their addiction to heroin and methamphetamine and cocaine and we still see that, but nothing has presented the lethality that fentanyl has. It’s changed the landscape. It’s as simple as taking one pill, and that requires a different approach.”

Of the roughly 150 fentanyl-related deaths investigated in Placer County, Gire said his office has filed three murder charges, choosing to do so "sparingly" when a case can be made that the defendant knowingly supplied the potentially lethal opioid.

Meanwhile, Romero's defense attorney, Michael Duncan, remains adamant that the Riverside County jury's ruling was "contrary to existing law."

Duncan said the criminal jury instructions were "too broad" for the case and a "serious miscarriage of justice that will be rectified by the Court of Appeals."

"Furnishing fentanyl is dangerous to human life, so is failure to signal a lane change, so is exceeding the speed limit by five miles an hour," he said. "So under the theory of this case, potentially all those things might be chargeable as murder."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.