Police cleared, former cellmate charged in man's death in holding cell

Edmonton police officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing in the death of a man last May in their holding cells, and a manslaughter charge has now been laid against a former cellmate.

Darcy Whitehead died last May of a fentanyl overdose from drugs he was given in a police holding cell

A man faces a manslaughter charge in a fentanyl-related overdose of another man. Both were in police custody. (Lethbridge Police Service)

Edmonton police officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing in the death of a man last May in their holding cells, and a manslaughter charge has now been laid against a former cellmate.

Darcy Whitehead, 47, was arrested on May 19, 2016, for theft under $5,000 and two bail breaches. He was locked in a holding cell at 12:36 a.m. at downtown police headquarters.

Ninety minutes later, Daryl Saunter, 40 was placed in the same cell. Though Saunter had been searched, he later retrieved a small quantity of concealed drugs and shared some with Whitehead, police say.

At 3 a.m., guards went to take Whitehead for a bail hearing and found him on the floor in "medical distress."

He was taken to hospital and died hours later.

 An autopsy found that Whitehead died of a fentanyl overdose and alcohol toxicity, and police immediately launched a homicide investigation.

​On Thursday, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team cleared police officers of any wrongdoing in Whitehead's death.

Saunter was arrested and charged with manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death and trafficking a controlled substance.

There were 343 fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta last year.

In Edmonton, only one other case has resulted in a manslaughter charge, said Edmonton police spokesperson Scott Pattison.

Jordan Yarmey, 25, was charged with manslaughter in October 2016 in relation to the fentanyl overdose death of Szymon Kalich.

Helen Yarmey said in October her son doesn't believe he should be held responsible for the death. 

Edmonton police said they charged Yarmey with manslaughter after an "extensive investigation."

Deterrent effect of charges 'weak at best'

Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, told CBC's Radio Active manslaughter charges in drug overdose cases are rare — but they are becoming more frequent.

"We've seen a number of charges rising as a response to the fentanyl crisis over the last year," Penney said. 

He said proving manslaughter in a drug overdose case can be difficult, but it is possible. The Crown prosecutor would have to prove the accused supplied the drug and that the drug was a significant factor in the person's death. 

"You don't have to prove that the fentanyl was the only cause of death … as long as it was a significant contributing cause," he said.

"There also has to be a showing that a reasonable person in a similar situation would have foreseen the possibility of at least some significant bodily harm." 

Penney said despite increased frequency of manslaughter charges in drug overdose cases, it's unlikely the potential repercussions would stop dealers.

"Drug trafficking is so lucrative and there's such a great demand, unfortunately, for these kinds of substances that there's going to be a supply one way or the other," Penney said.

"While it's possible that this may serve as a deterrent in a small number of cases, I think it's fair to say the overall effect is going to be weak at best."