The state medical examiner's office has taken the rare step of classifying a 24-year-old woman's recent drug overdose death as a homicide, one of several recent killings being investigated by Baltimore detectives.
Though there are hundreds of drug overdoses each year in Baltimore, investigators typically have little insight into the circumstances surrounding such cases. As such, the medical examiner's office declines to assign a manner of death, leading the state to have a high rate of deaths deemed "undetermined."
"If someone injects a toxic substance into somebody and kills them, everybody would call that a homicide," said David Fowler, the state's chief medical examiner. "Because of the nature of these cases, we don't often get that kind of information."
A recent case, however, had enough supporting evidence for the medical examiner's office to rule that it was a homicide, something that hasn't happened in several years.
On April 18, medics were called to the 3100 block of Hamilton Ave., in Northeast Baltimore's Glenham-Belhar neighborhood, for a report of a woman in cardiac arrest. An investigation showed that the woman, 24-year-old Amber Brown, had earlier complained of chest pains, and she and a friend consumed alcohol and injected each other with heroin, police said.
Brown fell asleep, then lost color and became unresponsive. Her friend called for help, but Brown was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital, police said. On April 24, the autopsy concluded that the cause of death was heroin intoxication, and the manner of death was homicide.
Marvin Sydnor, a retired city homicide detective who spent 25 years the unit, said he never saw a drug overdose ruled a homicide. "I can understand how they'd make that ruling, because, one person caused the death of another. I think it probably happens a lot, but our problem is we would find an overdose" and not know anything else about the death, he said.
Now that the medical examiner has made a ruling, police and prosecutor's need to decide what to do about the person who said she injected the drugs. No one has been charged, but police say the investigation is ongoing.
According to a 2008 study by the Baltimore Health Department, an average of 260 people in the city died from intoxication deaths, including alcohol or at least one drug. Though the number has been on a steady decline since the late 1990s, heroin is the most common drug associated with intoxication deaths, representing more than 75 percent of such cases. In 1999, 283 people died from heroin overdoses, which declined to 150 in 2006.
In most instances, the circumstances of a drug overdose are not known: Did the person deliberately inject themselves with the intention of committing suicide, or was it an accident? Or did someone else give them the lethal dose, making it a homicide – defined as a death at the hands of another person?
Without that information, Fowler believes investigators have no choice but to label the death "undetermined." That has led to accusations, from relatives of some who died and also from some elected officials, that the city's homicide rate was deficient, but Fowler said his method is "intellectually honest." He said Rhode Island and Massachusetts are the only other states that use the same methodology, making Maryland's statistics hard to compare with others.
Brown's death was one of several being investigated by homicide detectives as the city's homicide count rose to 86, four more than at the same time last year:
-Police say a 6-month-old girl, who had been hospitalized since May 22, died as a result of injuries from being beaten. The child's father, 34-year-old Demante Palmer, called 911 to report a non-breathing infant in the 1600 block of E. Coldspring Lane.
At the hospital, it was determined that the baby, who was named Olivia, had several injuries, including second-degree burns on her face and neck, a broken right rib, and bruising to her arm. She died on May 27, and homicide detectives took control of the investigation.
Palmer has been charged with attempted second-degree murder, child abuse, assault and other charges, and was being held without bond. The charges are likely to be upgraded following the child's death.
Olivia is the fifth juvenile killed in Baltimore this year, and her death is the third case in which the child's father has been charged in connection with the death.
-Police were also investigating the fatal stabbing of 47-year-old Ettice Jones, who was fatally stabbed Monday night in the 1200 block of Woodbourne Ave. in the Cameron Village neighborhood. Authorities believe she was involved in an argument with a male acquaintance before 10 p.m., and was stabbed multiple times. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she later died.
Det. Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman, said investigators had a person of interest in the case and were continuing to investigate.
-Police also identified three recent homicide victims: Jacqueline Laster, 47, was one of three people shot in the 2500 block of W. Fayette St. on May 24. Lt. Col. Garnell Green, the commander of the homicide unit, said last week that investigators believed Laster was targeted over a dispute, and two others were wounded. She died Friday evening.
-The man shot Thursday night in the 4600 block of York Rd. was identified as James Shird, of the 6000 block of Arizona Ave., in Frankford. And the man shot May 22 in the 600 block of N. Carey St. was identified as 58-year-old Sylvester Rodgers; police have charged Dominick Brooks, 24, in the killing.
Anyone with information on any of these cases was asked to call homicide detectives at 410-396-2100.