Prosecutors have limited success in drug death cases
By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER, The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
Jan. 03, 2018
SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Despite a drastic increase in the number of drug dealers charged with causing overdose deaths, prosecutors statewide have limited success in securing convictions on the charges, a Times-Tribune investigation found.
Since 2011 through Sept. 30, prosecutors filed 317 cases of drug delivery resulting in death, of which 189 have been resolved. Of those resolved cases, 81, or about 43 percent, ended with convictions or guilty or no-contest pleas to drug delivery resulting in death, according to the newspaper's analysis of data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The other 57 percent resulted in pleas or convictions to lesser charges, including involuntary manslaughter, which accounted for 41 cases or 22 percent of the total, and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, which accounted for 44 cases or 23 percent.
Prosecutors acknowledge the difficulty in proving the cases means they do not always get a conviction for drug delivery resulting in death. However, that does not mean the cases are not worth pursuing, they said.
"To me, there is an amount of criminal responsibility that needs to be taken, even if the charge is ultimately reduced," said Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub. "We are sending a message to the community: these are homicides regardless of the outcome."
Weintraub and other district attorneys said many factors come into play in deciding whether to allow a defendant to plead to a lesser charge. Among the most important are their level of culpability and whether they cooperate in the investigation.
In other instances, a case that initially seemed promising might fall apart if the toxicology report does not definitively prove the substance the dealer sold was the primary cause of death or if witnesses stop cooperating. Obtaining a plea to a lesser charge ensures the person is held accountable for the death, prosecutors said.
In Lackawanna County, two of the five cases filed since 2011 have been resolved, with one resulting in a conviction on the most serious charges.
A jury convicted Stephanie Tarapchak, an Ashland physician, in 2015, of drug delivery resulting in death and other offenses for illegally prescribing pain pills to multiple people, including a man who died. She was later sentenced 7½ to 15 years in prison. The state attorney general's office prosecuted the case.
In the other case, the Lackawanna County District Attorney's office allowed Doniela Valentin, of Carbondale, to plead guilty in January 2015 to possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and recklessly endangering another person for selling heroin that killed one of her relatives. Valentin was sentenced in April 2015 to 13 to 26 months in prison.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he has no concerns about how the cases are being handled.
"I'm not going to tell DAs what they should do," he said. "They have to make judgments based on the facts in their counties."
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.
York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said the drug delivery resulting in death charge is an invaluable tool in getting lower level dealers to give up their supplier.
"Many times, we plead them down if they cooperate," Kearney said. "We use the person as an informant to work up the chain as far as we can. ... It's a very valuable thing that keeps people from being killed in the future."
As of Sept. 30, the most recent information available, York County resolved 14 of the 35 cases filed since 2011. Of those, six people pleaded guilty or were convicted of drug delivery resulting in death while another six pleaded guilty to possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. One person pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and one person pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia after the state Superior Court affirmed a county judge's decision that suppressed certain evidence.
Kearney and other district attorneys say they also consider the person's role in the death in the drug deal.
"If you have a drug dealer out there killing people or you have the case of a family member or longtime partner sharing with a friend, we are going to look at that differently," Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said. "Sometimes we plead to involuntary manslaughter if it's two friends using together."
Lancaster County has been the most successful in getting a conviction on the most serious charge. Of the 22 cases filed in the county since 2011, 15 have been resolved. Of those, prosecutors obtained guilty pleas to the drug death charge in 12 cases,or 80 percent. In the other three cases, the defendants pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Still, authorities sometimes run into problems, Stedman said. Most times witnesses are fellow drug users, which creates credibility issues. A case that initially seemed promising may turn if witnesses stop cooperating.
"We had a case I would have liked to push for a bigger sentence, but we had proof problems," Stedman said. "We have dropped a couple down to involuntary manslaughter for that reason."
Stedman said he remains committed to aggressively pursuing the cases, regardless of the outcome.
"I'm fully aware we can't prosecute our way out of the heroin problem, but there has to be accountability," Stedman said. "You sit down across form a family member who lost a loved one to an overdose. You can't bring that person back, but there is some sense of justice that something is being done. ... Even if we stop them for a couple of years, we've stopped them for a couple of years."
Diane Graff believed her son, Christopher, was finally on the right path.
The 30-year-old Dunmore man worked hard to beat his heroin addiction and was clean for a year.
On the evening of Dec. 13, 2015, she found him slumped over the edge of his bed.
"I slapped him, trying to wake him up," she said. "I knew in my heart he was dead."
After overcoming the initial shock, her grief turned to anger. Who sold her son the drugs? That person needed to be held accountable.
"As far as we are concerned, he is a murderer," she said. "I want him in jail."
She got her wish this year when federal authorities charged three people with supplying the fentanyl-laced heroin that led to her son's fatal overdose.
Her son seemed the most unlikely person to develop a drug addiction, Graff said.
He abhorred drugs and alcohol as a teenager.
"He thought it was disgusting," she said.
He earned a bachelor's degree in history and sociology in 2007, and was pursuing a master's degree in history when he died. He wanted to be a teacher.
His troubles began in 2012, when he was severely injured in a car accident. He got hooked on pain pills and later turned to heroin, his mother said.
As she awaits the trial, Graff said she continues to struggle with her son's death. She gets by each day by focusing on her good memories of him.
Her son was a kind-hearted person who cared deeply for people, particularly the elderly, Graff said.
"We had this elderly neighbor," she recalled. "He'd go over and sit and talk with this little old lady, just so she had someone to talk to."
She also takes solace from some of her son's friends, who continue to memorialize him on his Facebook page.
"They post videos and pictures of Chris," she said. "I get to see him laughing and having a good time. ... It makes me feel good he's still remembered."
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/