As fentanyl-laced drugs kill thousands of Americans, should dealers be charged with murder?

ByBarb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones and Maggie Green and Chuck Goudie WLS logo
Friday, May 10, 2024
Should drug dealers be charged with murder for drug-induced deaths?
Fentanyl-laced drugs kill thousands in Illinois ever year. Should our drug-induced homicide law be used more forcefully to charge dealers with murder?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Potent and deadly street drugs, most laced with fentanyl, continue to kill Americans at staggering rates. In response, many states are now enacting fentanyl crime bills which permit murder charges against drug dealers.

Illinois has had a drug-induced homicide law on the books for decades, but the use of that law is causing a struggle between grieving families, law enforcement and prosecutors debating whether dealers should be held legally responsible for overdoses.

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As the I-Team has reported over the years, the use of the law is uneven in the Chicago area. The collar counties file more charges and achieve more convictions than Cook County, the state's most populated area.

Phillip Bernard has been dealing with this problem since his daughter Veronica died of an accidental drug overdose in 2022.

"She fought her whole life to be an overachiever," he said. "It was like a lifetime worth of activity jammed into 23 short years."

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Bernard said she was a talented and accomplished student who was working on a doctorate in Chicago when she experimented with street drugs to deal with the stress of school. She fell victim to counterfeit pills she consumed along with Xanax, a benzodiazepine.

"When it's counterfeit, it's like a wide range of how much could be in each pill, and that stopped her breathing and she expired," Bernard said.

He wanted police and prosecutors to lean on Illinois' drug-induced homicide law to go after the dealer by using texts on his daughter's phone as evidence, which he said included messages and social media posts. But he said the investigation went nowhere. He remains worried the dealer will harm more people.

"They know so much about this person, but they can't get him," Bernard said.

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In 2022, the I-Team found that counties in the Chicago metropolitan area were much more aggressive in their use of the law to pursue charges. That uneven landscape continues in 2024. McHenry County continues to far outpace others in cases and convictions.

According to officials, 24 people have been convicted in McHenry County since 2016.

"I think the numbers and some of the statistics that we've seen in McHenry County give me a lot of confidence that what we are doing has meaningful impact on people's lives and is actually saving people's lives," said McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally.

In contrast, an I-Team analysis found Cook County had only four DIH convictions since 2016.

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx declined to provide any explanation for why they prosecute far fewer drug-induced homicides than even smaller counties.

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"The number of opioid deaths in Cook County doubles homicides not involving illicit drugs. So why would this not take, you know, priority? I don't understand it?" said Terry Almanza, founder of the Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation.

Almanza, who is also a former Chicago police officer, lost a daughter to laced drugs. She now advocates for the law's use, including helping teach the Chicago Police Department how to build the homicide cases. While she appreciates the efforts of law enforcement, she's frustrated more isn't happening in Chicago.

"What's more important right now than the opioid crisis?" she wondered.

Kenneally said smaller counties tend to watch and sometimes emulate what's happening in larger areas.

"The entire heartbeat of the drug trade stems from Cook County, it just does, and there are cascading consequences for a step down approach for drug prosecution coming from Cook County," he said.

CPD vowed in 2022 to make DIH investigations a priority. The department declined an I-Team interview, only providing a statement saying in part, "Drug-induced homicides remain very complex investigations requiring significant evidence to prosecute."

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Defense attorney and ABC7 legal contributor Tony Thedford questioned whether there is much public appetite for pressing forward on these cases.

"The prosecution of drug dealers in this space has been a political football, if you know what I mean, in some sections of our state and in our community," he said.

He also said the law is fraught with philosophical issues.

"Whether it's a good idea or not is still open to debate. We have tried to prosecute our way and jail our way out of the drug crisis in the country now, since we designated the War on Drugs in the 80s, and it hasn't worked," said Thedford.

Some public health researchers claim threats of severe punishment cause fear among the drug-using population that can result in fewer calls for help and more deaths. Other critics say the cases are difficult to pursue, tough to prove and simply ineffective. Bernard disagrees.

"You want to go after the people that are selling and you want to put pressure on them to turn evidence against the mid-level, and then that's the way you break the cycle; by working your way up the food chain." he said.

Prosecutors who spoke with the I-Team pointed out that initial drug-induced homicide charges can still lead to convictions with pleas to lesser charges. They also said the laws can be valuable tools to help go after large-scale dealers.

In 2021, Illinois' Good Samaritan law was expanded to provide immunity against drug-induced homicide charges for those who call 911 when a companion overdoses. The protection includes family members or friends who may have supplied the drugs. The expanded law is aimed at saving lives in the moment.

A student wellness fund in honor of Veronica Bernard was established at Rush University Graduate College and can be found on the Rush University Medical Center giving website.

Full statement from the Chicago Police Department

The Chicago Police Department extends our deepest condolences to families who have lost loved ones to drug-related causes. Throughout the past few years, CPD detectives have received training that equips them with the tools and knowledge to conduct investigations into deaths caused by illicit narcotics that have caused pain to many families.

Drug-induced homicides remain very complex investigations requiring significant evidence to prosecute. During these investigations, detectives sift through available evidence and witness statements to determine if cases meet all the criminal elements of drug-induced homicides. Despite the intricacies of these cases, we will continue working through them in pursuit of justice for the victims, their families, and all those affected by illegal narcotics.