With heroin overdoses killing more young people in Ohio than car crashes, prosecutors are turning up the heat on dealers, friends and others who unknowingly provide the doses that end up sending drug users to the morgue.
Going after suppliers in drug-induced deaths isn’t a new idea – Congress passed such a « strict liability » law after the 1986 cocaine-related death of basketball star Len Bias – but a new heroin scourge now has prosecutors intensifying efforts to identify, charge and imprison people who provide, and sometimes even administer, the lethal doses. As part of the effort, some police departments have started treating fatal drug overdoses as homicide investigations from the start.
Ron O’Brien, chief prosecutor for Franklin County, which includes Columbus, said use of the strategy has increased statewide over the past year as officials search for answers in the crisis.
« I think we can make a difference, » O’Brien said. « I cannot claim it would be a substantial dent because we have to combine it with other strategies, » including special treatment in court for addicts and mental health counseling.
Some of the recent cases in Ohio where alleged suppliers were prosecuted:
– Alyssa Hatfield, 26, sobbed and apologized during her sentencing Tuesday in Akron for giving a lethal dose of heroin to a man she called her best friend. Hatfield was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to corrupting another with drugs.
– Also Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Dayton announced grand jury indictments charging two men with distributing fentanyl – a powerful painkiller often mixed with heroin – that resulted in the deaths of at least two people. The death-related charge, if they are convicted, could get them a minimum of 20 years in prison each.
– On Monday, 27-year-old Stephanie Lane was sentenced to two years in prison in Marion County, north of Columbus, after pleading guilty to reckless homicide and heroin trafficking. Prosecutors say she sold less than a gram of heroin to a 29-year-old friend who fatally overdosed. Her attorney said it was a fair outcome.
– On Dec. 30, 26-year-old Brian Hawk was sentenced to 4 1/2 years after pleading to involuntary manslaughter and drug trafficking in Dayton. He was accused of providing heroin to 44-year-old Jeffrey Clark and failing to get help when he found him unresponsive. Hawk said he feels responsible for Clark’s death.
– On Dec. 23, a judge in Cincinnati said he hoped other dealers would take note of the 10-year prison sentenced he handed to 33-year-old Kenneth Gentry for selling a deadly dose of fentanyl-laced heroin to 38-year-old Scott Kehrer. Gentry, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other charges, apologized in court and said he, too, was grappling with a heroin addiction.
Defense attorneys and other critics of the strategy say prosecutors, under pressure from the public to do something – anything – about the problem, are charging people who had no intent to kill. And, critics say, it’s often difficult to tell what other factors – underlying health conditions, other drugs – led to a fatal overdose.
Prosecutors in the Northeast and Midwest, where the heroin problem is especially bad, also are increasingly using the well-tested strategy to go after individual suppliers, according to David LeBahn of the national group Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Some state legislatures have passed laws to make it easier to do.
« You are holding them accountable for what they are doing, and also bringing forward the fact that selling heroin is not a ‘nonviolent’ activity, » LeBahn said. « It is killing people. »