All told, the public defender’s office had dealt with six pending fentanyl homicide cases in the last few months, and each one followed the same pattern: An addict was selling, distributing, or sharing drugs that directly caused someone’s death, he technically met the definition of first-degree murder and the possibility of a life prison sentence in Oklahoma and a growing number of other states.
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas this month signed a law to reclassify fentanyl overdose deaths as « poisoning, » and Arkansas passed a « death by delivery » bill in April to charge some overdoses as homicides in attempt to dissuade anyone from selling or even sharing fentanyl. Prosecutors in Alaska, California, Florida and at least a dozen other states were beginning to pursue new murder cases against any defendant who fit the broad definition of a fentanyl dealer: a 17-year-old from Tennessee who, after graduating from college, shared the fentanyl in the school parking lot with two of his friends, both dead; an Indiana husband who bought fentanyl for his disabled wife, who overdosed while trying to numb the chronic pain of multiple sclerosis; a real estate agent in Florida who threw a party and called 911 when one of his guests overdosed; a Missouri high schooler who gave a pill to a 16-year-old girl he met at church and warned her to « just make a quarter and then make the other quarter if you don’t feel like it. »
A group of Republican senators, including one from Oklahoma, introduced a bill in February to charge fentanyl traffickers and pushers nationwide with felony murder in what Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio called a “simple, common-sense step to help turn the tide and protect our communities”
But as Mai studied Askins’ file, she saw that Oklahoma City police officers in this case hadn’t traced the fatal dose of fentanyl to a cartel manufacturer, or a drug dealer, or a big dealer, or even to the street trader known as « Suge » who had sold fentanyl to Askins and Drake and whose name Askins had given to police at the scene. Instead, they only arrested and charged one person, Askins, who had a criminal record for nonviolent drug offenses. His file showed that he suffered from depression, anxiety and PTSD from being raped by a neighbor when he was 9 years old. bins and plasma donation twice a week.
Mai left private practice and took a 40% pay cut to become a public defender in her home state because she wanted to work cases like this one. She had pictured herself fighting for the underdogs, standing up and speaking before a jury like her idol, Clarence Darrow, whose trial victories helped advance the civil rights movement. But the reality of Mai’s job meant handling 80 or 90 cases at once: petty copper thefts, drug deals, and domestic disputes that typically ended with her clients striking deals and pleading guilty to lesser charges. In his nearly two years as a public defender, he had never brought a case to trial.