Now 23 and finally sober, Semler is slated to spend two decades in prison for sharing what turned out to be a fatal dose of heroin with her friend. In what has become an increasingly common — and controversial — way of responding to the opioid epidemic, prosecutors charged her with distribution of heroin resulting in death, a federal statute that carries a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence and was initially intended to crack down on drug dealers. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter sentenced her to 21 years in prison with six years of supervised release and a $2,500 fine.
To Margaret Werstler, Jenny’s mother, the ruling was hardly a victory. “There is no winning family,” she told the Inquirer, predicting that Semler’s family would be devastated by the outcome.
“But they can at least visit her,” she added.
Werstler and Semler, both from the Philadelphia suburbs, first met at rehab in 2013. Werstler, an only child who had recently graduated from high school and worked as a manager at the burger restaurant that her family owned, loved skiing and traveling, according to her obituary. Semler came from a family that had been wracked by divorce, her attorney wrote in a sentencing memo, and had developed a heroin addiction at the age of 15 after she was prescribed opiates for a major spinal surgery.
By 2014, as her 20th birthday approached, Werstler was living in a halfway house in Florida. She had a scheduled court date for drug paraphernalia charges, her parents told the Inquirer, and the judge demanded that she return to Pennsylvania. Fearful that being around her old friends would threaten her hard-won sobriety, her family pleaded for leniency, but their appeal was rejected. She flew home for the court hearing and went out to celebrate her birthday with friends the next day.
That day — May 9, 2014 — Werstler contacted Semler through Facebook Messenger to ask about getting some heroin, according to prosecutors. Semler replied that she knew a place that they could go, and promised to bring a syringe that Werstler could use. Accompanied by Semler’s younger sister, they headed to West Philadelphia, which, like many other areas of the city, has been hit hard by the opioid crisis.
After Semler bought heroin from a dealer she knew, the three headed to a nearby KFC and began shooting up in the women’s restroom. Werstler reportedly asked for a second dose because it was her birthday, then immediately began to show the telltale signs of an overdose. Instead of calling 911, Semler and her sister frantically cleaned the restroom to hide evidence of their drug use. Then, they hurried out of the KFC, leaving Werstler “alone and fighting for her life on the bathroom floor,” prosecutors said.
A KFC employee later spotted Werstler’s limp body and called 911. The 20-year-old died in the hospital that day.
In December 2018, a jury convicted Semler on one count of distribution of heroin resulting in death, and an additional count that was added because the KFC was located within 1,000 feet of a playground. In a Wednesday statement, Jennifer Arbittier Williams, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said that Semler had “acted with complete disregard for another human life, the life of a supposed friend,” and described prosecutors’ aggressive response as part of a “multilayered approach to confronting the opioid epidemic ravaging our neighborhoods.”
In a sentencing memo, Semler’s attorney, S. Philip Steinberg, acknowledged that she had “acted in a manner that was beyond reproach by any traditional notions of societal decency” while addicted to heroin. But rather than being indicative of “a callous, unsympathetic disregard for the well-being of her friend,” he argued, her decision to leave her friend in the KFC bathroom was a sign of how deeply the drug had warped her mind.
“Emma Semler’s addiction does not excuse her conduct, however it does endeavor to explain it,” he wrote.
To some, the punishment that the judge ultimately handed down seemed overly draconian. David Menschel, a criminal defense attorney and activist, blasted the 21-year sentence as “barbaric and cruel” on Twitter.
“Mass incarceration was caused in large part by a series of dumb, carceral moral panics,” he wrote. “One of worst right now is the panic about heroin.”
As communities ravaged by the opioid crisis argue that pharmaceutical companies should bear responsibility for an epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives, prosecutors are simultaneously testing out a different tactic. For years, they’ve warned of lengthy sentences for drug dealers whose products can be linked to a fatal overdose. Now, drug users who simply share their supply with people who end up overdosing are also facing prison time, often under laws that were originally meant to penalize high-volume dealers.
In courtrooms across Pennsylvania, it’s become increasingly common to see prosecutors charge addicts and run-of-the-mill users with distributing drugs after someone overdoses, according to the Inquirer. The strategy has been controversial: Critics fear that drug users will hesitate to call authorities for help when they witness an overdose if there’s a chance that they could face criminal charges. But prosecutors argue that it sends a necessary message, and serves as a deterrent to drug users.
During Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Semler wept as she expressed “extreme remorse” for Werstler’s death, describing how she had gotten sober and devoted herself to helping others shake the scourge of addiction.
“If I could go back and change anything, I would,” she said, according to the Inquirer.
The judge pointed out that she had not directly apologized to Werstler’s family. With tears falling down her face, Semler turned and mouthed, “I’m sorry,” the paper reported.
But Margaret Werstler, Jenny’s mother, wasn’t convinced. “You’re only sorry for yourself,” she responded.
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