No one left the courtroom feeling good about what transpired.
In what she called the most difficult case she has ever heard in terms of a sentencing decision, Circuit Judge Laura Johnson sentenced Alexandra Gonzalez to 120 days of jail time, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for selling drugs to Austin Clark, a Nixa student who died of a drug overdose at the age of 18. Johnson did not act as Christian County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Anna Bunch asked and sentence Gonzalez to 15 years in prison.
The case raises a larger and more abstract question: How much can a drug seller be held responsible if the drug buyer overdoses and dies?
The answer is, at least in this case, a fair amount.
“I believe that Ms. Gonzalez would probably be successful on probation. I don’t believe that I would ever see her again. I don’t believe she is a career criminal, and I see plenty of those,” Johnson said.
Gonzalez will spend the next four months of her life in the Christian County Jail. Upon her release, she will spend five years on probation, where she will fall under the supervision of probation officers and be subject to random drug tests. Any more transgressions, and Gonzalez will be called back before Judge Johnson to answer for them, and she could be sentenced to prison time.
Gonzalez will live on thin ice with hot blades strapped to her feet. However, she will have opportunities to redeem herself and work to move beyond whatever part she played in the death of Austin Clark.
Clark’s family members asked the judge to send Gonzalez to prison for selling their son Xanax over a five-day period leading up to his death. Because Clark was on house arrest, Gonzalez allegedly delivered drugs to his bedroom window.
“Addiction takes over people’s hearts and minds, and people lose control of themselves,” Johnson said. “In the end, the young gentleman here sought the drugs and took them.”
Clark was an addict, but he was also described as a bright and kind boy who enjoyed acting, singing and playing games. Addiction was not the only quality that defined who Austin Clark was to those who loved him. His parents say he had about six months of clean time before suffering the relapse that killed him.
That’s where we, both Clark and Gonzalez included, failed to help.
“Our society fails young and old alike who are addicted. We really do, we have no good answer,” Johnson said. “I’ve been at this long enough to know that an addict needs intense treatment and supervision for probably a year or more, and we just don’t offer—our society does not offer those kinds of options, and until we do, there are going to be people out there who just don’t receive treatment.”
In his closing argument to defend Gonzalez from a prison sentence, defense attorney Joseph Passanise hinted that a lack of drug addiction education was partly to blame for the loss of the Nixa teenager.
“These kids take these drugs and think nothing of it. They don’t understand the ramifications, they don’t understand the repercussions,” Passanise said. “As the court knows, 17-year-olds to 26-year-olds think they’re bulletproof. They think they can live a lifestyle where there is zero accountability.”
Passanise argued that Gonzalez was not a dealer or a drug pusher preying upon a helpless addict, but a girl with a troubled background trying desperately to make friends and fit in with other kids in Nixa.
Prosecutor Anna Bunch briefly questioned the peer pressure defense.
“It’s very concerning to the state, and I don’t know that it makes it better or worse that she was just doing it to be accepted,” Bunch said.
If we’re being honest, it’s worse. If you’re buying drugs from a dealer then selling them to someone else to try to make yourself look cool and likable, it shows you have your own set of issues that you probably should get help for. It’s been deemed that Gonzalez herself is not an addict, but a scared girl, now just 20 years old.
Alexandra Gonzalez will get some help, albeit through the criminal justice system and with the added stigma of a felony conviction and the supervision of a probation officer overhead.
“In almost every case where I deal with an offender of this age who has no criminal history, I give that offender an (suspended imposition of sentence). That’s to give them a chance to try to turn their life around,” Johnson said.
Turn her life around, Gonzalez probably will. It’s too late for Austin Clark, but we as a society can try to help Alexandra Gonzalez and what are probably scores of other young people just like her. At the very least, we can use her case to bring more frank and honest discussions forward so that another Nixa teen will not go on to suffer the same fate.