Supplier on Trial in West Knox Overdose
Jessica Lyday grew up on a tree-lined street in West Knoxville safe enough for her and her classmates to walk to school.
She loved to swim, a “water baby” from the start, like her mother, who raised her alone but with a doting grandmother nearby. She played soccer, sang in the church choir and eventually became a student at the University of Tennessee.
“She was the joy of a lifetime,” mother Jan Lyday said — before prescription painkillers turned her daughter into a heroin addict.
Jessica Lyday died at the age of 30 in July 2015 in the bathtub of her childhood home, her bags packed with hope for a placement in a faith-based treatment program in Nashville. It would have been her third trip through rehab. Heroin killed her before she could get to a scheduled interview.
Who is to blame?
Now, prosecutors Hector Sanchez and Ken Irvine want Kenyon Reynolds — the man they say put the heroin in the hands of the dealer who sold it to Jessica Lyday — convicted of second-degree murder.
“He was out there selling heroin,” Irvine told jurors in Knox County Criminal Court on Monday. “He sold the heroin that caused Ms. Lyday’s death.”
There is a special provision in the law that allows prosecutors to seek a second- degree murder charge in a death “that results from the unlawful distribution” of particularly lethal drugs such as cocaine and heroin or other opiates if they link the drug in the victim’s body to a specific supplier.
What’s unusual in this case, though, is that the Knoxville Police Department has already charged the man who put the heroin into Lyday’s hands and ultimately the needle Lyday used to administer what turned out to be a fatal dose — her ex-boyfriend Justin F. Lee.
Can both the dealer and the supplier be held criminally responsible under Tennessee law? That’s what defense attorney Clinton Frazier was asking jurors Monday in his opening statement on behalf of Reynolds.
“There’s one issue here,” he said. “The person who ultimately gave Ms. Lyday the drugs that led to her death was not Mr. Reynolds.”
From choir to addiction Lee, for now, has not pleaded guilty in the case but — after an initial lie — he cooperated with police, KPD investigator Phil Jinks testified Monday. Lee and Lyday had dated years before.
Both became addicted, first to prescription opiates and then to heroin, which has become the cheaper and more readily available illegal substitute for prescription drugs.
Lyday’s mother described her daughter’s upbringing to jurors Monday as Sanchez flashed onto a screen the quiet, tree-lined Westridge Road where she was raised and had returned.
“Jessica sang in the church choir,” she said. “She loved all kinds of music from day one … There were the normal sleepovers and church activities.”
Her daughter, she said, was physically active and earned decent grades, though she struggled with algebra.
She was a junior at UT when addiction took over her life. Her mother said her daughter had gone through two 30-day treatment programs to no avail. The industry standard for opiate addiction treatment is 90 days.
By late June 2015, though, Lyday had made it through the initial screening process for a long-term, faith-based treatment program in Nashville. On the night of July 2, 2015, she’d packed her bags for an interview in that process and went for a walk, which her mother said she often did.
What her mother didn’t know was Lyday had stolen cash from her purse, called Lee and walked to a nearby drug store to buy heroin from him. While her mother slept, Lyday filled a syringe with heroin, injected it into her arm and got into a tub full of water.
She overdosed, and her head slipped under the water. Her mother found her the next morning.
Jinks told jurors he confronted Lee after an initial investigation. Lee lied — until Jinks found heroin in his mailbox, the investigator testified.
Lee agreed to call his supplier, whom he identified as Reynolds. With police watching, Reynolds put $360 worth of heroin in Lee’s mailbox and took the $360 in marked bills Jinks and his fellow Organized Crime Unit investigators had left there as payment, Jinks told jurors.
Police followed Reynolds to his home on Morrell Road in West Knoxville. Inside the home, police seized more than 14 grams of heroin and more than $43,000 in cash.
The trial in Judge Bob McGee’s courtroom resumes Tuesday. Reynolds faces a 25-year prison term if convicted.