LITTLE ROCK -- A Little Rock man is facing as much as 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court Wednesday to distribution of fentanyl in connection with the drug overdose death of his girlfriend in a Little Rock motel room in 2019.
According to a plea agreement, Jeffrey Johnson, 39, was at the Best Value Inn in Little Rock on Jan. 7, 2021, with his girlfriend and he gave her a mixture of heroin and fentanyl. After she took the drugs, the plea agreement said, she fell to the floor, unconscious and not breathing. According to the plea agreement, Johnson gave her CPR until she began breathing again, at which time he placed her in the bed, then fell asleep himself. The next morning, the plea agreement said, Johnson discovered she was not breathing and had no heartbeat. She was pronounced dead later that day at a Little Rock hospital.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacy Williams, Johnson faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, a $1 million fine and three years to life on supervised release. U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. explained to Johnson that if he meets the requirements as a career criminal, he could face a much higher sentence.
Johnson was indicted Feb. 3, 2021, by a federal grand jury in Little Rock on charges of distribution of fentanyl and distribution of heroin. In exchange for his guilty plea on the fentanyl distribution count, Moody dismissed the heroin distribution count.
Moody explained Johnson's rights and the rights he would surrender by pleading guilty and said that although a sentencing range would be calculated using U.S. sentencing guidelines, Moody would not be bound by the agreement and could sentence him to any prison term up to the maximum statutory sentence.
"If you plead guilty and I accept it, you're going to be found guilty on your guilty plea. There won't be any trial and you will have waived all of these rights," Moody said. "The United States Sentencing Commission has issued guidelines and I want to make crystal clear that the guidelines are not mandatory. Based on your circumstances and my discretion, I can sentence you any terms of years that's within your statutory penalty if I think that's justified."
Moody warned Johnson that, should that occur, he would not be allowed to withdraw his plea. Moody said if the guideline range that will be calculated at his sentencing hearing using a pre-sentence report compiled by the U.S. Probation Office were to be higher than expected, he would not be allowed to withdraw his plea.
"Parole has been abolished and if you're sentenced to prison you will not be released early on parole," he explained, adding that if he were to violate the terms of his supervised release after leaving prison, he could wind up going back to prison and the combined sentence could exceed the statutory maximum. He also asked if anyone had promised him anything not in the plea agreement in exchange for his guilty plea.
"I'm basically saying no side deals that aren't contained in the paperwork," Moody said.
Moody also warned Johnson that he has no involvement in the plea agreement process and is not bound by its terms.
"All of those terms may be binding on the government and binding on you but they're not binding on me," he said. "Your sentence is going to be completely up to me."
After Williams read the terms of the plea agreement, the elements of the crime, and the rights Johnson would be surrendering, Moody referenced the plea facts contained in the agreement, which Johnson declined to have read in open court.
"If this case were to go to trial do you believe the government could prove each and every fact laid out in [the plea agreement]?" Moody asked.
"Yes," Johnson answered.
"Is that because those facts are true?" Moody asked.
"Yes sir," he repeated.
"Do you admit that you knowingly distributed a controlled substance to someone else?" Moody asked. "And at the time you knew it was a controlled substance?"
In a low voice, Johnson said both were true.
"Do you believe it's in your best interests to plead guilty?" Moody continued, to which Johnson answered affirmatively.
"How do you plead?" Moody asked.
"Guilty," Johnson replied.