Changed Pennsylvania law may prompt more charges in fatal overdoses
Prosecutors hope to convict more drug dealers of selling heroin or other narcotics that cause overdose deaths under a revised state law that no longer requires proof of intent.
“We no longer have to prove intent. That didn't make sense. Why would a drug dealer want to kill his customer?” said Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who in 19 years has prosecuted only four cases of drug sales that resulted in death.
Prosecutors said they hope that filing the seldom-used charge — drug delivery resulting in death, the equivalent of third-degree murder — helps to convict drug dealers and to stem the surge in overdose deaths in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Allegheny County averages about 250 overdose deaths annually, according to the Medical Examiner's office. Westmoreland has set death records for five consecutive years, hitting 86 in 2013, according to the coroner. The Washington County coroner investigated 58 overdose deaths last year.
Authorities blame the epidemic on cheap, potent heroin and overprescribed pain medications.
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha said detectives and forensic specialists are now on the scene of every overdose fatality, along with his office's investigators. The office has investigated 10 deaths this year; 11 are pending.
Peck said detectives gather evidence to use in potential prosecutions of drug dealers.
“In view of the number of heroin overdose deaths and drug overdose deaths, we intend to look at these cases more closely,” he said.
Bacha said toxicology in a victim's bloodstream is compared to heroin in stamp bags found at the scene or heroin seized when police arrest a dealer.
“It's just a matter of making the connections, connecting the dots,” Bacha said. “We're anxious to see some of the overdoses result in convictions.”
Earlier this year, Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala said he will prosecute dealers who sold heroin laced with the powerful pain medication fentanyl, which has caused 22 deaths in Southwestern Pennsylvania since January.
Even with the change in state law, such cases are difficult to prosecute, said Zappala spokesman Mike Manko, who added, “We don't have any (cases) in the pipeline.”
“All the change did was take malice out of it. It's treated like third-degree murder, but it's not really third-degree murder,” he said.
In 2001, 15-year-old Brandy French of Sewickley in Allegheny County died after taking the synthetic “designer drug” Ecstasy. Gregory Ludwig of Beaver County had sold three pills to French's friend, who gave one to the younger girl at a rock concert. Ludwig was charged with third-degree murder and drug delivery resulting in death. An Allegheny County judge dismissed the charges in 2002 because prosecutors couldn't prove his actions were malicious. A third-degree murder conviction requires malice, an intention to inflict serious bodily harm or indifference to the value of human life.
The judge tossed out the murder charge in March 2002, ruling that the state law under which Ludwig was charged requires proof of malice. Zappala's office appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the trial judge's ruling.
In 2011, the Legislature amended the law.
District attorneys across the state hope the change will be a deterrent, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
“That is one objective — over time as dealers see the impact of the change,” Long said.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.