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Pennsylvania

Drug death charge nets mixed results

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, 12:06 p.m.
State police seized 150 bricks of heroin during a traffic stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.
State police seized 150 bricks of heroin during a traffic stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.
Stamp bags of heroin seized by the Pennsylvania State Police in a recent multi-county bust on Feb. 4, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Stamp bags of heroin seized by the Pennsylvania State Police in a recent multi-county bust on Feb. 4, 2015.
The Westmoreland County Coroner's Office said drug overdoses in the county broke a record last year, with a large portion of fatal overdoses involving heroin laced with fentanyl.
Submitted
The Westmoreland County Coroner's Office said drug overdoses in the county broke a record last year, with a large portion of fatal overdoses involving heroin laced with fentanyl.

Pennsylvania district attorneys have netted mixed results pressing charges under Pennsylvania's 2011 law that made drug delivery resulting in death the equivalent of a third-degree homicide.

The Times-Tribune of Scranton reported that an analysis of state court records through Sept. 30 showed prosecutors statewide filed 317 cases of drug delivery resulting in death since the law took effect. Of 189 cases that had gone through the courts under the 2011 law, the newspaper found that 41 percent resulted in convictions, guilty pleas or pleas of no contest.

The remaining cases ended in pleas and convictions on lesser charges or acquittals.

State lawmakers added drug delivery resulting in death to the prosecutor's arsenal in 2011 as drug overdose deaths began to soar.

In 2016, 4,642 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses. The toll is expected to go higher when the numbers for 2017 are compiled.

Authorities say the number of overdose deaths began to increase dramatically in recent years as drug dealers began cutting heroin with deadly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Like third-degree homicide, a conviction on drug delivery resulting in death can carry a maximum penalty of 20-40 years in prison.

As is the case across the state, drug delivery resulting death cases in Westmoreland County netted mixed results. The first case that went to trial ended in an acquittal in 2013. More recently, prosecutors have netted convictions and guilty pleas as well as pleas to lesser charges for cooperating defendants.

Street dealers aren't the only people being caught up in death by drug delivery charges. Prosecutors are targeting physicians who write voluminous prescriptions for opioids to individuals who then die of drug overdoses.

Agents from Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office charged two Westmoreland County physicians with drug delivery resulting in three deaths last year.

“Physicians can be part of the solution by altering their prescribing practices or by going to jail,” Shapiro said, when agents charged Hempfield Dr. Edgar Derek Peske, 78, in April with drug delivery resulting in the 2015 death of a 30-year-old Fairfield Township woman.

On Dec. 1, they charged Dr. Michel P. Toret, 71, of Jeannette with drug delivery resulting in two deaths in 2016.

Shapiro told the Times-Tribune he has no concerns about how the cases are being handled across the state.

No matter the outcome of the cases, the increased prosecutions are having an impact, he said. He recalled a recent heroin bust in which the dealer was quick to tell the agent he was not selling fentanyl-laced heroin.

“He said to the agent he didn't have fentanyl because he did not want to get hit with drug delivery resulting in death,” Shapiro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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