A local California prosecutor won what he says is the state’s first murder conviction in connection with a fatal fentanyl overdose, marking a legal milestone in efforts to curb sales of the increasingly deadly drug.
The prosecutor, Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire, said last week a 21-year-old man pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for supplying fentanyl to a 15-year-old girl who died shortly after taking it. consumed in June 2022.
The retrial in Placer, northeast of Sacramento, is closely watched by law enforcement and California legislative circles, which lost nearly 6,000 people to fentanyl and other opioids in 2021, the latest year for which complete data are available.
Prosecutors have looked for ways to hold the people who distribute the drug accountable for the staggering death toll. But some lawmakers have expressed concern about a return to the aggressive drug prosecutions of decades ago, which have left drug dealers and users languishing in prisons across the United States.
« I’ve heard the criticism that this is a reenactment of the war on drugs, » Gire said in an interview. « It is not. Fentanyl is something else.
Many of the deaths caused by fentanyl occur because victims are unaware that the drug they are using contains the deadly opioid. In the California case, Mr. Gire sought to prove that the defendant, Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan, knew the Percocet pills he supplied the girl contained fentanyl and that he knew « how deadly it was. » Mr Cabacungan supplied her with the pills, watched her die after taking them, walked out and then sold more drugs to others, according to Mr Gire.
A public defender representing Mr. Cabacungan did not return a request for comment. Mr. Cabacungan, who faces a prison sentence ranging from 15 years to life, is expected to be sentenced next month.
Overdoses are now a leading cause of death among Americans. Synthetic opioids contributed to 75,000 overdose deaths in 2022, with fentanyl accounting for the majority of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the toll increased, federal, state and local prosecutors across the country brought charges against the suppliers that resulted in significant prison sentences.
But bringing a murder charge into a fentanyl death can be a tough case to prosecute, said Greg Totten, chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association.
A prosecutor must « prove that a drug dealer knew the activity could lead to death and continued with the business anyway, » Totten said. « It’s a very high standard to demonstrate. »
The California Legislature has debated a number of bills aimed at addressing the fentanyl crisis, including a measure that would make it easier to pursue serious charges against suppliers. The measure would require those convicted of a fentanyl crime to be warned that they could face even more serious criminal consequences if they continue to sell the drug and it results in deaths.
But that and other measures have stalled over concerns that the state should focus on drug treatment and prevention and not target street dealers.
Mr. Gire said he was pursuing murder charges in only three cases among the approximately 200 fentanyl-related deaths that had occurred in his county since 2020. He said he would avoid pursuing a murder charge, for example, against a drug addict who gave fatal dose to another drug addict.
« We look at whether the person is trying to make a profit and how insensitive they are, » Gire said. « When they keep doing that and they keep killing people, that goes in the direction of murder. »