In-depth: A look into prosecuting drug-induced homicides in Tennessee

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Posted at 8:44 PM, Jun 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 02:46:29-04

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (WTVF) — With how much fentanyl they’ve seen in the past several years, attorneys in Williamson County say it’s become a top priority to prosecute those who “put this poison on our streets to the highest extent of the law.”

Fentanyl was hardly on his radar ten years ago when Assistant District Attorney Carlin Hess was merely an intern at the very offices he now works from in Williamson County. He’s only prosecuted two drug-induced homicide cases in his career before this year. Now he has several on his plate, with four of them involving fentanyl abuse.

“It’s become the problem drug and it’s one we’re seeing the most of,” Hess said.

It’s so prevalent and in so many substances, that Hess says virtually everyone charged with possession has no idea their drugs were even laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl deaths increased in Tennessee by more than 46 percent between 2018 and 2019, according to the most recent report from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Fentanyl was added to the law for drug-induced homicides around the same time, although this law was already on the books since 1990. So now those sharing laced drugs leading to death could face second-degree murder. The charge carries a minimum mandatory sentence of at least ten years.

“The person might be an addict as well. That does not excuse furthering the distribution into the community and putting other people’s lives in danger,” Hess said.

This is where Hess and other prosecutors rely on their discretion for whether to prosecute. Hess says some jurisdictions will only target the “big fish” in terms of major players in the drug trade and dismiss the recreational users. It creates a discrepancy in keeping track of the number of fentanyl-related drug-induced homicides across the state and beyond. Some have argued this is one major flaw in the prosecution of these cases because you’re often locking up people who have little to no impact on drugs distributed in the community.

“We hope that by prosecuting these cases as second-degree murder and not just drug dealers, that it will cause people to think twice before they do that. Before they distribute it in the community,” Hess said.

Tracing the drugs back to who shared them has proven to be a challenge in itself. Most jurisdictions have to rely on the victim’s cell phones because the person you want to charge is likely long gone. Hess said the data pulled from cell phones is often circumstantial at best in court, meaning it’s not a first-hand account you can rely on as evidence. Speaking of court, you may also have a juror who believes the victim should have known what they were getting into by taking drugs.

Hess says while he wants to prosecute to stop the spread of drugs, he also wants others to understand those who die are still victims.

“What’s different about fentanyl is that in most of these cases, these folks don’t know that they’re buying fentanyl. That’s what’s different about these cases and that’s what makes me want to prosecute them more vigorously,” Hess said.

There’s not much evidence to show if more prosecutions have led to a reduction in the number of drug-induced homicides. Tennessee is one of 20 states with similar laws on the books, but there’s not one uniform policy for every jurisdiction to follow. It’s why Tanja Jacobs says we need alternatives.

“The state of Tennessee, if not the federal government needs to do a public service announcement on tv, on radio, on every social media for three to six months just like they did with COVID because our kids are dying,” Jacobs said.

They never caught the person who gave her son drugs that led to his death in Nashville last year. Romello Marchman had a promising new job as an electrician’s apprentice, but the pandemic took its toll. Jacobs says her son began self-medicating and one day experimented with cocaine. He was found dead not long after by his father after he failed to answer calls from family and his girlfriend. The medical examiner’s office determined Marchman had high levels of fentanyl in his system and likely died because it was laced with cocaine.

Jacobs believes the investigator in charge of her son’s case did not take the matter seriously enough to where they would consider homicide charges. She says they wasted valuable time not searching through his cell phone until it was too late. Since Marchman’s death, Jacobs started the Romello Marchman Foundation where they help families pay for victim funeral arrangements. Jacobs has also partnered with groups across Tennessee to offer more Narcan kits and test strips to identify if what you have is laced with fentanyl. She says they're also in the process of setting up a support/grief group soon if anyone needs help. With her pursuit for justice all but lost, she wants others to think beyond just prosecution and see this as a public health issue.

“They die because they take it (drugs) for the same reason. To try to help their stress level and it does not discriminate. It affects everybody,” Jacobs said.