Maryland prosecutors pursue manslaughter, murder in overdose cases

The overdose looked like so many others in Maryland: A young man found unconscious on the bathroom floor, drug paraphernalia nearby.

But prosecutors would treat the death of 35-year-old Christopher Wade in Charles County in 2015 differently. They would charge his drug dealer with manslaughter in the first case of its kind there. What Wade thought was heroin, they said, was pure fentanyl — the much more potent synthetic opioid that’s driving the surge in drug deaths in Maryland and across the nation.

To Wade’s mother, Sandra, the manslaughter charge was only fair. She says she pushed prosecutors to pursue the charge.

“It takes two to tango,” Wade said. “It takes two, and the victim has paid the ultimate price with their life. So it’s fair that the other person should be charged.”

As the opioid death toll mounts, some Maryland prosecutors are bringing charges of manslaughter and even murder against those who are supplying users with fatal doses.

The move remains rare. But prosecutors in seven counties have brought such charges, according to the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

“They’re dealing in death,” said Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington. “It’s our job to hold them accountable.”

Not everyone agrees. Critics say holding dealers criminally responsible for overdoses misassigns the blame and won’t stem the death toll.

“Southern Maryland has been hit very hard in this opioid crisis,” said Matthew Connell, managing attorney of the St. Mary’s County public defender’s office. “It’s a tragic thing. … But it’s not murder.”

At least 21 people have been charged with manslaughter in overdose cases since 2014, The Baltimore Sun found in a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Most were charged in the past two years.

A Queen Anne’s County judge convicted an Arnold man of manslaughter last month in the 2016 overdose death of a 23-year-old man in Grasonville.

More drug-related manslaughter trials are scheduled in Queen Anne’s, Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties. In St. Mary’s, the charges also include second-degree depraved heart murder.

“You’re seeing people die and your natural reaction as a prosecutor is to want do something about it,” said Calvert County State’s Attorney Laura Martin, the president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association. “There are some of us who feel that legally, that’s not an appropriate charge, and others who feel that it is.”

St. Mary’s County State’s Attorney Richard Fritz called a press conference in August to make a special announcement: Second-degree murder charges against alleged drug dealers accused in fatal overdoses. He was joined by Gov. Larry Hogan and State Police Superintendent Col. William Pallozzi.

“The drug dealers have to pay the consequences,” Fritz said. “For $50, they do not mind killing our children, our wives, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters. This has got to stop.”

The charges, he said, were “a new shot across the bow at every single drug dealer in St. Mary’s County.”

Connell, of the public defender’s office, acknowledges the message resonates with the many Marylanders who are angry about the deaths.

But “what about the personal responsibility of the individual drug addicts?” Connell asked. “We’re all responsible for the consequences of our own behavior.”

Connell represented Regina Claggett-Brown, one of eight people charged in St. Mary’s County, and the first to go to trial. She was accused of selling heroin to a Chesapeake Beach man who died of an overdose last year.

A jury acquitted Claggett-Brown last month of second-degree murder, manslaughter and distribution, but found her guilty of reckless endangerment and drug possession.

To win a conviction for manslaughter, the state must prove that a defendant acted in a grossly negligent manner that caused the victim’s death — or that the victim’s death occurred during the commission of an unlawful act by the defendant.

Second-degree depraved heart murder is “the killing of another person while acting with an extreme disregard for human life.”

Fritz did not respond to requests for comment for this article. His office is prosecuting two more cases scheduled to go to trial in December. More are set for next year.

Sandra Wade lives in the small Calvert County town of Lusby. Up the street from her home, a roadside sign flashes its message: “Every overdose is someone’s child.”

Some 25 miles away in Benedict, her son’s photo hangs with those of many others on a yellow wall inside a chilly barn building at Serenity Farms. It’s a memory wall to commemorate those lost to drugs.

Wade has connected with other grieving survivors through a Facebook group called Southern Maryland Overdose Death Support.

“We hold each other up when we need to be held up,” she said.

Christopher Wade loved sports, especially football. Never married, he worked as a repossession agent.

His mother says his opiate addiction began with oxycodone.

Christopher Wade knew Samantha Thomas for years, Sandra said. They were “supposedly good friends,” she said.

Prosecutors say Wade bought an opioid from Thomas in October 2015. They say Wade thought it was heroin — but it was fentanyl.

Within hours of the transaction, Wade was dead. Prosecutors say Thomas told detectives that she traveled to Baltimore regularly to buy drugs to resell, and knew that what she sold might not be heroin. Investigators used text messages between Wade and Thomas to link her to the fatal dose.

Thomas pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, to run alongside another drug sentence she was already serving.

Sandra Wade said bringing such charges sends a message that drug dealers will be held accountable.

“We’ve got to put a stop to the flow of drugs,” she said.

Michael Beach, the district public defender for several counties including Charles, declined to comment on Thomas’ case. But he said he is troubled by what he called “ill-advised prosecutions.”

“[They’re] designed to make it seem like something’s being done about the opioid epidemic, when in reality, it is just a reprise of the failed war on drugs of the 1980s and ’90s,” Beach said. “It’s largely ensnaring addicts who are selling to support their habit and not making any real dent in the distribution of opioids.”

The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that supports decriminalizing drug use and promoting treatment, said in a recent report that there is “not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities.”

“In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases,” the group said.

The groups says 13 states, including Maryland, considered legislation this year to create or increase penalties for “drug-induced homicides.”

With or without new legislation, prosecutors in Maryland and other states are charging people under existing murder and manslaughter statutes. There are no national statistics on how many people have been charged, but the organization found a 300 percent increase in media mentions of such cases between 2011 and 2016.

“So far, there’s been absolutely no deterrent effect,” says Lindsay LaSalle, a senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. “I don’t think we should expect any deterrent effect.”

LaSalle also sees a racial element in holding the person who supplied the drugs criminally responsible for an overdose death.

Now that the opioid crisis is understood to affect white people, users are seen as victims of their drug dealers.

But when drugs were seen as a problem that affected primarily African-Americans, LaSalle said, “it was their fault, and no one was to blame but themselves.”

Federal prosecutors have long used a charge known as distribution resulting in death, but Maryland state law has no equivalent charge.

The Hogan administration proposed legislation this year to create a new criminal charge: Distributing opioids resulting in death. Convictions would have been punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Legislators changed the charge to knowingly distributing fentanyl, punishable by 10 years.

The law, which took effect Oct. 1, has not yet been widely used. Harford County authorities charged an Aberdeen man under the law last month. They allege he sold a heroin-fentanyl mix to a 33-year-old man who died of an overdose.

Maryland prosecutors have brought murder or manslaughter charges in only a small fraction of the state’s overdose deaths. In the Baltimore area, only Anne Arundel County has brought such a case. Prosecutors in Baltimore and other surrounding counties have not.

More than 2,000 Marylanders died from overdoses last year, a 66 percent jump from the previous year, according to state health officials, and the largest-ever increase in a single year. Most involved opioids.

Michele Hansen, an assistant state’s attorney in Washington County, has brought charges against people in three cases.

“These cases are very hard to prove,” she said. “I don’t charge manslaughter unless I have the facts to support it.”

Among the obstacles, she said, is that there are rarely witnesses to an overdose.

Three defendants in Washington County have pleaded guilty to manslaughter after providing a user with a fatal dose, Hansen said. In each case, she said, the victim knew the person charged.

One man gave his friend a syringe filled with heroin and fentanyl, she said.

In Worcester County, prosecutors have charged four people with manslaughter, State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby said. They dropped charges against one for lack of evidence.

In the remaining cases, two defendants were convicted by a judge last year. In the third case, a judge granted a motion for acquittal on the manslaughter charge, but a jury found the guilty defendant of drug charges.

Oglesby said local law enforcement now looks at overdoses as crime scenes. To build cases, he said, prosecutors are looking for statements from the accused and cellphone or social media evidence proving that the overdose victim purchased the drugs from the suspect.

Peter Bruun lost his 24-year-old daughter Elisif to an overdose in 2014. He says prosecuting the people who give drugs to victims is “not the solution.”

“Elisif used because she had a disease,” he said. “The criminal justice system is not equipped to address addiction. Period.”

Elisif, who grew up in the Baltimore area, was a bright and talented artist, her father said. She attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, a college in Boston, but dropped out her sophomore year.

She struggled with substance abuse for years, with underlying depression and anxiety, her father said.

She appeared to be doing well at the CooperRiis Healing Community, a treatment facility in North Carolina, her father said, but something triggered her addiction. She asked a friend in Philadelphia to send her drugs. The friend agreed, stuffing heroin into a greeting card and mailing it to her at the recovery center.

Elisif used the drugs and died. Authorities in North Carolina charged Sean Harrington with second-degree murder.

The Bruuns learned Harrington was also addicted. Bruun and his wife opposed the decision to bring charges, and declined to cooperate with prosecutors. Bruun even offered to testify on Harrington’s behalf.

If convicted of second-degree murder, Harrington could have been sentenced to decades in prison. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to 16 to 29 months, with credit for time served.

Bruun said he does not blame Harrington for his daughter’s death. He’s become friends with both Harrington and his parents.

After Elisif’s death, Bruun and his wife moved to the quiet of Maine. But he maintains ties to Baltimore. He has launched the New Day Campaign, an art-based initiative to “challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and substance use.”

Bruun calls the overdose prosecutions “hypocritical.”

“There is a cultural wave to destigmatize those suffering from addiction,” he said. “So now that we’re no long blaming the users as much … we need to find another fall guy, another tangible thing to name as the cause of the problem.”

Bruun said he doesn’t judge grieving parents who disagree with him.

“When you lose your child, you cannot help how you feel,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion surrounding this. But we can’t let emotion govern what’s right.”

alisonk@baltsun.com

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