When Jarret McCasland and his fiancee decided to celebrate her 19th birthday with heroin, it meant the end of her life and the end of his freedom.
Flavia Cardenas, who worked in a nightclub, died of an overdose the next morning in Baton Rouge. After a prosecutor convinced a jury that McCasland administered the fatal dose, the 27-year-old pipe fabrication shop worker was found guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in February with no chance for parole.
With deaths from heroin and opioids at their highest level in U.S. history, prosecutors have begun charging those who supplied the final dose with murder, even when that person is the deceased’s friend, lover, sibling or spouse.
The new initiative is sometimes in direct conflict with good Samaritan laws, which protect addicts from being charged if they call 911 when a fellow user is overdosing. The tougher approach also is in marked contrast to a growing movement that seeks to treat drug addiction as a disease and public-health crisis rather than criminal behavior.
Prosecutors in New Jersey, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana have recently dusted off dormant War on Drugs-era laws to subject sellers and providers to homicide charges and stiff sentences on par with convictions for shooting, beating or poisoning people to death. In New York, Ohio and Virginia, lawmakers have introduced bills to allow murder charges to be filed in drug-overdose deaths.
In New Hampshire, the attorney general is partnering with federal prosecutors to investigate all opiate-overdose deaths as crimes instead of accidental deaths. A particular focus of the crackdown is fentanyl, which in 2015 surpassed heroin in drug overdose deaths in the state. The synthetic opiate is far more potent than heroin and is often added to intensify the high and cut production costs.
In Pennsylvania, where the exasperated Lycoming County coroner announced in March that he would begin categorizing heroin-overdose deaths as homicides on death certificates, the federal government also has begun ratcheting up penalties for even low-level dealers whose products cause bodily harm or death.
“I think a person who supplies illegal drugs to a person that kills them is committing an act of violence,” said David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who in 2015 was tapped by then-U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to co-chair a national heroin task force. “It’s no different than a person who shoots somebody with a gun.”
What is different is a focus on the bottom of the supply chain, when investigators once prioritized putting away those at the top.
The heftier criminal charges come even as more locales are deploying their police as first-aid workers always on patrol with the antidote naloxone, which restores breathing and often saves the lives of heroin-overdose victims. A pilot program outside Cincinnati sends police and emergency crews with drug-addiction counselors on follow-up visits to the homes of people who have recently overdosed.
Taken together, the swirl of sometimes conflicting new initiatives — efforts to get users into treatment instead of putting them in jail, the clampdown on suppliers and dealers, dramatic differences across state lines on what constitutes behavior worthy of a murder charge — reflects how the devastating speed of heroin’s wrath in large sections of the country has left authorities scrambling for solutions.
“We are all just kind of at a loss,” said Lt. Liz Scott of the sheriff’s department in Spotsylvania County, Va.
Between 2011 and 2014, the number of heroin overdose deaths in the United States soared from about 4,400 a year to more than 10,000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Factor in prescription opioids and the 2014 death toll rises to 28,647 — a record high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To try to save lives, about 30 states have passed good Samaritan laws exempting drug users from prosecution for minor drug violations when they call 911 and stay with a friend who is suffering from an overdose, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. But in states with no such law, a 911 call can be a precursor to a murder charge and a new level of family devastation.
That’s what happened to 39-year-old William Moore, of Spotsylvania County, when he called 911 during the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 26, after finding his wife, Ashley, unresponsive in their mobile home.
Because Moore admitted to deputies that he had given Ashley the heroin — and even though his wife injected the heroin herself — he was charged with felony murder. Moore, who authorities say is an addict and a dealer, also has been charged with child endangerment, because two of the couple’s children, ages 2 and 10, were home at the time.
Scott acknowledged that Moore apparently wasted little time in dialing 911.
“There is no evidence that he waited to clean up the area,” she said. “He certainly wanted to render aid to his wife. He was cooperative.”
Another complication in cracking down on sellers while providing help for users is that the line between the two is often blurred.
“A lot of people who deal drugs are addicts, even though they are caught selling or trafficking,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. “If you go after the person who sold to the person who wound up dying, you’re not really going after the people who are responsible for the drug trade — the kingpins.”
On much of the East Coast, authorities are showing unprecedented leniency to users while cracking down hard on heroin dealers — a polarity highlighted by two specific proposals in the state of New York.
In Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick (D) has proposed creating the nation’s first injection center where addicts can shoot up under the supervision of medical workers equipped with naloxone.
Meanwhile, the New York state Senate last June passed a bill — named “Laree’s Law” after 18-year-old Laree Farrell-Lincoln, who died of a heroin overdose three years ago — that would enable prosecutors to charge heroin dealers with homicide when their product can be linked to a death.
Farrell-Lincoln was the only child of Patty Farrell. She was a straight-A student and a cheerleader. She was also strong-willed and curious, Farrell said, and tried heroin on a whim. Her descent was rapid. She lost 30 pounds in a month and quickly confessed to Farrell, a retired Albany police officer, that she was an addict.
“She would be sitting with me on the love seat and she was just high as a kite,” Farrell said. “It was gut-wrenching. She’d be sitting up, falling asleep, eyes half-closed.”
After a 28-day stint in rehab, she relapsed, and her spiral resumed.
One morning, as Farrell was making coffee, she called upstairs to her daughter, and heard no response. She ran upstairs, opened the bedroom door and found Laree facedown in bed, eyes open.
“She was the love of my life; I just lived for that kid,” Farrell said. “Heroin took her down in four months.”
On both sides of the addict-supplier divide, families are left in shambles.
In New Orleans, Chelcie Schleben, 23, and her ex-boyfriend Joshua Lore, 25, were locked up for a year and a half as they awaited trial. Schleben and Lore were charged with the murder of Kody Woods, who died of an overdose while the three, all in their early 20s, were using heroin in a home in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood in 2014. The two pleaded guilty Tuesday and were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In a sense, the Woods family lost two members in this tragedy: Woods and Lore were best friends who had palled around since middle school.
“It was a brother relationship,” said Woods’s oldest sibling, Tonya Hebert, 38, who became their mother’s right hand after the 1999 death of their father, and then the family’s de-facto parent after the 2008 death of their mother. “They would do normal boy things — rims on their cars, paintballing, going to the movies. . . . They did so much in life together.”
Steven Coleman of Charleston, W.Va., 27, grew up in a troubled home of addicts, according to family members and his attorney. He found his mother in bed, dead of a methadone overdose, in 2004 and got addicted to painkillers prescribed for stomach pain in 2010. When the pills became difficult to acquire, he turned to heroin.
On Valentine’s Day in 2015, Coleman’s father, who lived with him, asked him for heroin. Coleman supplied it on a plate, and the father went into a bedroom and used it with a female friend — 43-year-old Melody Ann Oxley — who died that night of an overdose, according to the criminal complaint. Coleman discovered Oxley and called 911, but he left the house before responders arrived.
In what is said to be the first case of its kind in Kanawha County, Coleman was charged with first-degree murder. Coleman sat in jail for nearly a year awaiting trial before he pleaded guilty on April 27 to lesser charges. Although the murder charge was dismissed, Coleman, who was facing life in prison, said the experience has cost him his reputation.
“It affected me greatly,” he said during a phone call from South Central Regional Jail, where he was held without bail. “It ruined how people view me. It ruined everything I ever had.”
Heroin, which he snorted, consumed his life. “It took away all my pain, all my worry and stress,” he said.
After he was jailed, Coleman rode out the withdrawal symptoms with the aid of detox medication but endured sleepless nights, loss of appetite and the pins-and-needles of restless-leg syndrome.
The shift toward stringency bucks a broadening bipartisan push across the United States to roll back the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and ’90s that locked up untold numbers of nonviolent drug offenders, fueling mass incarceration.
Some crime experts say the current crackdowns seem all too reminiscent of the old ways.
Douglas Husak, a legal-philosophy professor at Rutgers University, said slapping dealers with murder charges is not only excessive, but misleading.
“You want the labels of what criminals have done to give people some kind of idea of what crime they’ve committed,” he said. “You don’t want to call somebody a rapist if what he did was grope somebody. I’m not condoning groping, but you’ve misrepresented what he’s done. To call people who sell heroin ‘murderers’ seems to distort what they’ve done. Call it like it is — they are drug dealers.”
But prosecutors and police leaders say heroin’s surging death toll has necessitated a tougher and more sophisticated approach to policing.
“It doesn’t follow that to be smart on crime you have to be soft on crime,” said Hickton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. After his 25-county district was besieged in August by a deadly strain of heroin cut with fentanyl, he announced that his office would lock up heroin dealers for 20 years to life if it could be proved that their product killed. Previously, drug charges have generally been tied to the quantity of drug seized or sold.
Tom Synan, police chief in Newtown, Ohio, and the head of a heroin task force in Hamilton County, agrees with the strategy, saying many dealers are well aware of the dangers of heroin and the more-potent fentanyl.
“In many cases, not only do they have prior knowledge, they are the ones helping to mix it,” he said. “To me that is more than just a street drug. You are intentionally fueling the addiction and giving [users] a product that is extremely dangerous and could cause their death, and you know it.”
That profile of a calculating heroin dealer is unrecognizable to Doug McCasland, the father of Jarret McCasland. He said his son’s incarceration is an outrage.
McCasland, 60, says he believes Jarret has been wrongfully convicted and is hiring a new attorney to file an appeal.
“He is totally innocent,” he said.
In the meantime, the elder McCasland said he is struggling to sleep at night. The father-son duo were close; they worked at the same plant and often carpooled together, leaving at 5 in the morning.
“They took our son from us,” he said. “The sentence they gave him is a living execution. . . . You would not believe the kind of person he is versus the kind of person they portray.”