PAOLA — Miami County District Judge Amy Harth sent a strong message Thursday, June 27, during the sentencing hearing for 29-year-old Michael Pearce.
“Drug transactions and drug use are not recreational,” Harth said. “They are dangerous business.”
Harth said involvement in drugs can lead to loss of life via incarceration or violence. Pearce’s case involved a middle-of-the-night drug deal that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Heather Briggs in July 2017.
In April, a Miami County jury found Pearce guilty of felony murder, guilty of distributing more than 3.5 grams of methamphetamine and guilty of making a criminal threat. He was found not guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
A sentencing grid gave Harth a guideline of what the sentence for each crime should be based on Pearce’s criminal history, but it was up to the judge to decide whether to run the sentences consecutively, which means one after the other, or concurrently, which means at the same time.
During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Miami County Attorney Elizabeth Sweeney-Reeder asked Judge Harth to run the sentences consecutively because of Pearce’s extensive criminal history, which she said included two residential burglaries and a Missouri drug case in which he was on probation for at the time of the 2017 incident.
Sweeney-Reeder also said that although everyone involved in the drug deal were there for an illegal purpose, it was Pearce’s actions that set into motion the chain of events that led to the death of Briggs.
Defense attorney Zane Todd of Olathe disagreed. He said the chain of events started with the people who set up the drug deal, and his client got out of one of the cars to retrieve Briggs, who had reportedly exited the vehicle in anger.
Todd asked that the sentences be run concurrently.
The sentence for felony murder is life in prison with no possibility of parole until after 25 years. Todd said it would be excessive to add another decade on to that by running the sentences consecutively.
“It’s essentially punishing my client for going to trial,” Todd said. “Twenty-five years is a significant sentence for someone who is essentially an accessory to this crime.”
Briggs’ mother, Kimberly Carpenter, and Pearce’s mother, Cathy Pearce, were both present at Thursday’s hearing. Before Pearce’s sentence was imposed, he was given the opportunity to speak, and he turned around to address Carpenter.
“I’m sorry for what happened to your daughter,” he said.
“I know you are,” she replied through tears.
Both mothers were emotional when Harth announced her ruling. She sentenced Pearce to life in prison with no possibility for parole until after 25 years for the felony murder charge; 130 months (10 years and 10 months) in prison for the drug distribution charge; and six months in prison for the criminal threat charge.
Harth then ruled that the sentences will be served consecutively, adding that the total sentence will ensure that Pearce will be unable to participate in drug transactions that could endanger the community. She also said she hopes the sentence serves as a lesson to the community about the dangers of drug use.
Todd informed the court he intends to appeal the ruling.
Before Pearce was escorted out of the courtroom by jailers, he was given the opportunity to hug his parents.
If Pearce’s sentence is upheld following the appeal, he will serve the most prison time of the seven people arrested and charged following the July 2017 incident.
Five of those arrested are already in prison after accepting plea deals that required them to testify in trials for Pearce and Kevin Stevens, who both pleaded not guilty to their charges.
In October 2018, a Miami County jury found Stevens not guilty of felony murder and drug distribution.
Those who accepted the plea deals were: April Lunsford, who was sentenced to eight years and two months in prison; Seth Herron, who was sentenced to 14 years and seven months; David Rhoades, who was sentenced to seven years and one month; Curtis Cooley, who was sentenced to eight years and two months; and Nichole Razo, who was driving the vehicle that ran over Briggs and was sentenced to 10 years.