Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans 50 and under. But can a “get-tough” approach to drug dealers—including the death penalty—address the country’s spiraling opioid epidemic?
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has called on federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for dealers who are found to cause opioid-related deaths, and President Donald Trump appears to back him.
“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Trump said last month to an audience in Manchester, NH, a community hit hard by overdoses. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
As the crowd applauded, Trump added cautiously, “Maybe our country is not ready for that.”
But a few jurisdictions seem to be.
In Florida, overdoses are traced back to suspected dealers, who are then charged with first-degree murder for the unlawful distribution of a controlled substance which results in death. First-degree murder in that state is punishable by life without parole, and the death penalty.
Emboldened by the renewed “get-tough” approach on drugs, prosecutors elsewhere have been moving fast to charge dealers with murder.
Another example is Broome County in New York State, where County District Attorney Steve Cornwell, assisted by his first-ever “overdose investigator,” moved last September to upgrade charges against Richard Gaworecki , 29, of Union, N.Y., to second-degree manslaughter, in a case involving a heroin sale that led to the death of Nicholas McKiernan, 26.
The manslaughter charge meant that Gaworecki now faced 14 years in prison instead of four.
“Whenever we can, we separate out dealers and users,” Cornwell said, in an explanation of his actions.
“That’s the goal. But when someone is selling drugs that kill somebody, then they can expect to be charged. We’re going to find those people and target that investigation to get to the root of the crime.”
However, public health and legal experts are skeptical of such hard-line approaches, and fear that drug users addicted to opioids—not dealers and major traffickers—will face unduly harsh sentences.
A Broome County attorney with direct knowledge of Gaworecki’s charges, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the case, told In Justice Today that Gaworecki was a heroin user, not a drug dealer.
“I believe the underlying drug deal here was the result of Gaworecki supporting his own habit,” the attorney said.
“I also believe that the proposed manslaughter charges against Gaworecki were completely unjust and politically motivated by the ambitions of District Attorney Cornwell.”
Public health activists and families who have lost loved ones to overdoses in Broome County are growing increasingly critical of Cornwell’s approach to “treat overdose deaths as crime scenes.”
Out of over 95 overdose deaths in 2016, 84 have become potential homicide investigations, according to local news reports. Cornwell’s critics say that most of those designated dealers are actually users themselves who, like Gaworecki, sell small amounts of drugs to their peers to support their habit, and that locking them up is counterproductive.
“Our elected officials’ actions do not match their words,” Broome County resident Alexis Pleus told In Justice Today.
Pleus started Truth Pharm, a nonprofit that helps families deal with the legal consequences of addiction, after losing her son to an overdose shortly after he was released from jail in August 2014.
“At every turn, it seems District Attorney Cornwell promotes arrests while saying, ‘We can’t arrest our way of out of this crisis,’” she said.
Cornwell’s office did not return multiple requests for comment from In Justice Today.
This is an updated version of an article that appeared earlier in In Justice Today. Zachary Siegel is a 2017-2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.