As the summer of 2017 drew to a close, Louella Fletcher-Michie and her boyfriend Ceon Broughton were in their tent at Bestival, joking about "festival fairies". Hours later, Louella was dead, having taken a large dose of the psychedelic drug 2C-P, allegedly given to her by Ceon – an accusation he denies.
Last week, 30-year-old Ceon, from Enfield in north London, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years after being found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, a charge he denied. The prosecution said Ceon failed to see the situation as serious, and instead filmed Louella while she screamed for help, calling her a "drama queen". He was reluctant to seek help at the nearby medical tent, the prosecution argued, because he was worried about breaching a suspended jail term. If he had taken Louella to get help, the court heard, she would have had a 90 percent chance of survival.
Ceon said he had no idea Louella was dying and is appealing against his conviction.
Undeniably, the facts of the case do not do reflect well on Ceon. But considering the decades of scare stories around black men supplying white girls with drugs, and the disproportionate sentencing of black men for drug offences, it's worth asking: is Ceon Broughton the victim of unfair press coverage and overly harsh treatment in court, or was his sentencing fair and in keeping with similar cases?
Louella's trip started off OK. In footage seen by the court, filmed by Ceon, she declared her love for her dad and said she was having "the best trip I've ever fucking had". She described "colourful taxis" and a "magical monkey riding the forest", and asked Ceon to call her parents – but he didn't, telling Louella "it's between me and you". "This is the happiest I've ever been. Film me!" Louella urged her boyfriend. In the footage, Ceon can be heard saying: "I never expected anything like this in my life. This is sick. This is amazing. This is real shit, bruv."
Not long after, Louella's behaviour changed; she became agitated and increasingly dazed. Worried about her safety, a friend urged Ceon via text to seek medical help, to which he replied: "I can't get bagged [arrested]," because – the prosecution argued – he was worried he would be jailed, having been given a suspended sentence for knife possession a month earlier. Soon after, Louella's brother and sister both "begged" Ceon to take her from the wooded area they were in to a medical tent, but he didn't. Instead, he continued filming her as she ate twigs and scraped thorns across her cheeks.
By the evening, Louella's mother Carol had managed to get through to Ceon, and heard her daughter "screeching" in the background. Carol and her husband then drove hundreds of miles from their home in London to the Bestival site in an attempt to save her.
From the beginning of the ordeal it took Ceon six hours to seek assistance at a nearby bar. It's impossible to know how high he was at the time because he declined to enter the witness box to give evidence in his defence, but he was lucid enough to text a friend asking him to say Louella hadn't got the drugs from him. Before leaving Louella in the woods to go and seek help, Ceon had sent Louella's father a pin to share her location. Using the GPS marker, a festival security guard found Louella, dead, at 1AM, on the morning of her 25th birthday.
In court, Ceon's defence argued that he just thought his girlfriend was having a bad trip and didn't realise she was dying. The fact that he filmed Louella demonstrated "he didn't realise the seriousness [of the situation], however stupid that may be", argued his lawyer. Sentencing him, the judge told Ceon, "I accept you have some remorse," but said "you were only concerned for yourself", adding that Louella's "life would have been saved" if he had sought medical assistance.
Through his lawyer, Ceon said, "I am sorry I did not do more to save Louella."
People who knew the couple have voiced concerns about how events were portrayed in court. Irish rapper Pablo Kush wrote on Instagram: "Bro lost the love of his life and they lock him up… The system is fucked up." Milkavelli, a close friend, insisted Ceon "did all he could to help" his girlfriend. "I love you Ceon. You don't deserve this," he added, in what the Mail Online dubbed a "sick rant".
Sonny Hall, a friend and model, wrote, "Love you Ceon. It's all sideways… u stay in my heart," before sharing a quote, reported in The Times, from a friend of Louella's who also sympathised with Ceon.
"The reason I feel so bad for him is that that could have been me or any of my friends," the friend said. "People say he watched her lying on the floor, looking as if she was dying, but every time I go to a festival I see at least one of my friends lying on the floor, looking like they're dying. You don't really acknowledge it as a life-or-death situation. Everyone is doing that. It's just festival antics. Ceon is being portrayed as some kind of drug-dealing gangster rapper, but he's a very nice, honest guy. He wasn't a drug dealer. It was literally unlucky."
I approached friends of Ceon's, and all were frustrated with and suspicious of the media, insisting it was a lie to describe him as a drug dealer – as the Daily Mail and ITV did – while praising his character. The Daily Mail also dubbed him "evil" in huge letters on their front page, quoting a brief outburst from Louella's father outside the court. Her mother later clarified that they did not think he was evil, just "stupid" and "massively selfish".
Rudi Fortson QC – a barrister and professor at Queen Mary University of London, who specialises in drug law – said the prosecution's case was based on Ceon's alleged failure to come to Louella's aid once it became apparent that she was experiencing life-threatening ill-effects. "I imagine that the jury would have been directed that the failure to act must be truly exceptional, and so reprehensible as to amount to 'gross negligence'," he said.
VICE has documented the growing trend of young people being jailed after giving drugs to a friend who later dies, even if the victim's family don't want to see them punished. Manslaughter charges are much rarer and, since a ruling in 2007, have not been routinely brought against the supplier of a fatal dose, "because an adult who makes a free, informed and voluntary decision to self-ingest a drug will be the one who directly causes the drug to have an effect on their body", explains Fortson.
However, Fortson says the number of manslaughter cases brought against people for gross negligence has "significantly increased" since the 2007 ruling. In 2009, for example, a Welsh woman lost an appeal against a conviction for the gross negligence manslaughter of her half-sister, after buying her heroin and leaving her to "sleep off" the effects, despite her showing signs of an overdose. The ruling asserted that "contributing to the creation of a state of affairs" that becomes life-threatening due to drugs, including supplying a loved one, can create a heightened duty of care.
Ceon's case matches both this and many of the criteria for a gross negligence charge. But defendants in similar but not as publicised cases have been acquitted of the same charge.
In November of 2017, a couple of months after Louella's death, Jason Burder, 29, and Adam King, 28, of Leicestershire, were cleared of gross negligence manslaughter after giving 16-year-old Megan Bannister MDMA, before driving around, buying beer and calling escorts while she was left to die in the back of their car. Failing to seek help and filming her suffering were also factors in that case.
The judge instructed the jury to acquit the men of manslaughter, as it couldn't be proven that medical help would have saved her. They were instead jailed for drug and driving offices.
Drug expert and founder of the Global Drug Survey, Dr Adam Winstock, describes Ceon Broughton's sentence as "a bit harsh", and says it was likely handed down as a "warning", adding that there are probably "hundreds of thousands of people" who give their friends drugs without experiencing consequences like him.
Winstock showed me data revealing that about one in five respondents to the Global Drug Survey who thought they should call for emergency medical help for themselves or others did not because of worries about the police. The figure was even higher for those who had taken stimulant drugs like MDMA or crystal meth, with Adam suggesting this could be due to paranoia.
"We have to ask why people are scared of the police, and that gets to one of the hidden harms of the war on drugs: the avoidance of help-seeking and advice," he explains. "People who don't seek help are scared of what the police might do, and that is a barrier we need to dismantle. Ceon was on probation and he was clearly scared. I don't think he thought his inaction would have led to the death of his girlfriend."
During the trial, an ex-girlfriend of Ceon's came forward to say he had also filmed her while she was dangerously out of it on drugs. The judge didn't allow the evidence to be heard in court as the woman said she had deleted the footage and her impartiality as a former partner would have been hard to judge. This didn't stop her account being widely reported in articles suggesting Ceon had a "morbid obsession" with images of suffering. Separate footage found on Ceon's devices was also reported, showing one woman passed out on a train and another dressed in underwear as he instructed her to take more drugs.
It's possible that Ceon acted cruelly and was driven by a sadistic urge, as some of the tabloids have made out. However, it's also possible that Louella's death was a completely unforeseen tragedy for all involved, and that while he acted stupidly and selfishly, Ceon also lost his girlfriend, his liberty and his future – and the Fletcher-Michies lost their daughter and sister – for his fear of being jailed.
It's always better to be safe than sorry when taking drugs with friends, says Dr Winstock. "If your mates are in trouble, is it for you to decide if they are going to be OK? I think you have a responsibility to do the right thing – the same thing you would hope your mate would do it was you who had fitted, passed out or was acting bizarrely and overheating. Ceon had the chance to do something. If you don't act, you will have to live with the consequences for the rest of your life."