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October 12, 2022

Severe federal drug sentence in a sad, high-profile case with so many stories within

I sometimes say to students (and on this blog) that certain cases could alone provide a robust foundation for teaching about so many different aspects of sentencing theory, policy and practice. Upon reading this Washington Post account of the high-profile federal sentencing of Eric Kay for providing the drugs that led to the death of Tyler Skaggs, I am yet again struck by how many notable issues and stories are sometimes tucked within a single sentencing. Here are some of the details:

Eric Kay, the former communications director for the Los Angeles Angels, was sentenced Tuesday to 22 years in prison after being convicted in February of providing the drugs that caused the 2019 death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs.  District Judge Terry Means said he went above the minimum 20 years Kay faced because of remarks he made in prison.   Prosecutors played a tape of a prison phone conversation in which Kay, whose calls were monitored and recorded, said of Skaggs: “I hope people realize what a piece of s--- he is. … Well, he’s dead, so f--- him.”

Means said he had been dreading sentencing Kay, 48, who was convicted of drug distribution resulting in death, because he felt mandatory minimums were “excessive.”  But the judge said the prison conversations showed a “refusal to accept responsibility and even be remorseful for something you caused.”

In his own remarks, Kay apologized for having “spewed vitriol” about Skaggs, prosecutors and the jury, in that and other prison correspondence. “I wanted to blame Tyler for all of this,” Kay said, calling his words “so wrong and foul.”

The emotional sentencing hearing spelled a bleak end to this phase of a legal saga that began when Skaggs, 27, was found dead in a Southlake, Tex., hotel room July 1, 2019, with oxycodone and fentanyl in his system. Kay has indicated he will appeal his conviction.  Kay, like Skaggs, was a user of illicit opioids.  During Kay’s trial in February, witnesses including several Major League Baseball players said he shared black market pain pills with them, though the government has not suggested he did so for profit.

Federal prosecutor Erinn Martin stated that Kay was in Skaggs’s hotel room when he choked on his own vomit — a contention based on key card evidence — and that he didn’t try to save the pitcher because “he freaked out and decided to save himself and his job” or because he was incapacitated himself. Martin said Tuesday that Kay knew the drugs he gave Skaggs were “likely or potentially counterfeit” and could contain fentanyl.

Kay, who did not take the stand in his own defense during the trial, did not directly address the government’s version of events Tuesday but expressed remorse for his actions, blaming his addiction.  “I will spend the rest of my days in repair,” said Kay, who wore an orange jumpsuit and was in arm and leg shackles, during remarks in which he sometimes sobbed.

Skaggs’s family members said Kay was responsible for the pitcher’s death in their own remarks in court Tuesday. “Eric Kay knew that the drugs he was giving to my son and other players [were] laced with fentanyl,” said Skaggs’s mother, Debbie, adding that “a strict sentence … has the power to dissuade people from providing lethal drugs to others.” ...  “I know no matter how much time Eric Kay gets it won’t bring back Tyler,” Skaggs’s father, Darrell, said in a statement read in court by Tyler’s aunt. “But the longer he is incarcerated, the safer everyone is.”

Kay, who was raised upper-middle class in Southern California and educated at Pepperdine University before rising to earn a six-figure salary with the Angels, had no previous criminal record.  But Martin, the prosecutor, said Kay’s prison correspondence was evidence that he hadn’t learned his lesson.  In emails and phone calls, Kay referred to the “trash-ass Skaggs family,” derided the jurors as “rednecks” with missing teeth and referred to a federal prosecutor’s “horrible makeup.” Martin also noted that Kay was allegedly caught with suboxone while in jail. “That kind of person reoffends,” Martin said. “Eric Kay isn’t going to stop.”

Kay’s attorney, Cody Cofer, said his client’s jailhouse remarks reflected the resentment of a man coming to terms with being separated from his family for two decades. “The notion that he is likely to reoffend is just not supported,” Cofer said.

Means said Kay should be incarcerated near his home of California, where he has three sons, the youngest of whom is 12. Kay’s middle child, 20-year-old Carter, said during the sentencing hearing that his father “wouldn’t do something bad willingly” and urged the judge to be lenient. “My little brother needs him most,” Carter Kay said. “I haven’t seen him smile in a while.”...

Since Kay’s trial, one of his attorneys, Reagan Wynn, has been suspended from practicing law after a Texas bar panel found he “failed to explain” to another client the facts of his criminal case. In a May hearing in Kay’s case, his other attorney at the time, Michael Molfetta, appeared to blame Wynn for having left Kay without representation during a meeting with probation officials before his sentencing....

Molfetta also has since left the case. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sandy Kay said her son had received a poor legal defense. “Tyler Skaggs was an adult male who willfully chose to engage in dangerous behavior that ended in his death,” Sandra Kay said. “And to hold someone else accountable for that is a great injustice.”

October 12, 2022 at 02:13 PM | Permalink


These are the types of stories that should garner discussion - however, that last paragraph - from the defendant's mother, I think shows she doesn't get it either - that putting her son in prison or holding someone else accountable is a "great injustice" is 100% wrong in this case, with these specific facts. Her comments are similar to the defendant's own comments recorded in jail and in emails - no remorse at all.

“Tyler Skaggs was an adult male who willfully chose to engage in dangerous behavior that ended in his death,” Sandra Kay said. “And to hold someone else accountable for that is a great injustice.”

Posted by: atomicfrog | Oct 12, 2022 9:56:41 PM

I'm with Sandra and the defendant. Psychotic Govt. and judge for blaming defendant for a druggie's chosen lifestyle. Now, on to parallelism with Hunter.

Posted by: Fluffyross | Oct 13, 2022 9:30:48 AM

It is truly reprehensible that Reagan Wynn failed to sufficiently advise a criminal defense client sufficiently about his case for him to properly make informed decisions. Because many defendants are not well educated and have limited financial means, defense council who commit malpractice (or worse) rarely face an consequences. Criminal defense lawyers are sued for legal malpractice less frequently than attorneys in any other single practice area. Yet, too many defense attorneys, particularly some public defenders, give bad advice or fail to give advice in necessary areas of the client's case.
Recently, the firm I work for has handled the case of an Indian immigrant to the U.S. (a Green Card holder), who was charged with misdemeanor assault on his wife for slapping her face once. This man has only been in the U.S. for 3.5 years. He and his Indian wife married in India more than 20 years ago. They have 2 teenaged children. The husband is about 60 ears old and has never previously been arrested or charged with a crime in an country. He is a first-time offender. The events leading up to the slap were that the wife told her husband that she had that day (behind his back and without his knowledge) signed a contract to buy a $300,000 house, and had put down $60,000 of their marital savings. The wife also told him that she was in love with another man. A public defender told a client to plead guilty and take probation, so that he could be released from jail, since he couldn't post his large cash bond. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Kentucky v. Padilla, the public defender told the client nothing about the potential immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a domestic violence assault, which could include deportation or the inability to re-enter the U.S. if he travels to India to visit his family. Further, the husband had been working as a mental health nurse at a large psychiatric hospital. After he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault - domestic violence, he was fired from his job (because he had a conviction that is disqualifying) and must self-report the conviction to the state nursing board, with may lead to the suspension of his nursing license. The public defender never asked him how he was employed or whether he held any kind of professional license. Further, his case might have been negotiated down to disorderly conduct and he might have been placed in a diversion program (as a first offender), for 6 months to 2 years. Then, there would have been no conviction and he would have kept his job and his nursing license. Upon successful completion of the diversion, the charge would have been dismissed and his arrest record could have been expunged. Meanwhile, his wife has closed on the $300,000 house, and she and their 2 children have moved into it. The new home is titled in her sole name and the husband is excluded and living in hotel. He has already been denied employment and apartment rentals based upon this one misdemeanor assault conviction, because his defense lawyer didn't do his job properly. Our law firm may have to file a state court habeas corpus based upon ineffective assistance of counsel committed b a public defender to get his guilty plea set aside and rework his case in a more competent way. Incompetent defense counsel can do great harm, but the are rarely held accountable for it.

Posted by: Jim Gormle | Oct 13, 2022 9:53:28 AM

Jim Gormley --

"Further, his case might have been negotiated down to disorderly conduct and he might have been placed in a diversion program (as a first offender), for 6 months to 2 years. Then, there would have been no conviction and he would have kept his job and his nursing license."

Sums up in a nutshell why plea bargaining can be extremely advantageous to the defendant. It's overused, IMHO, but the idea that it should be banned is asinine.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 13, 2022 2:43:24 PM

Bill Otis: If the Public Defender had done his job properly, and had negotiated a reasonably plea, the firm I work for wouldn't have to be trying to get a guilty plea set aside based upon ineffective assistance of counsel. The Public Defender's failure to counsel this Indian man with a Green Card about the possible immigration consequences of pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault - domestic violence is just unforgivable, after the Supreme Court's decision in Padilla v. Kentucky. We are hopeful that his situation can be turned around. The prosecutors have said that they will not oppose our Motion for Habeas Corpus, to set aside the guilty plea, based upon ineffective assistance of counsel. The will leave it up to the Judge.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Oct 13, 2022 3:18:11 PM

Jim Gormley --

The defendant's petition should be granted and the defense lawyer disbarred. I wonder how many other clients got screwed by his ignorance.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 13, 2022 5:23:38 PM

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