NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tanja Jacobs says the threat of fentanyl poisoning will only get worse unless prosecutors take action and hold drug dealers responsible for the heartbreak they leave behind.
Jacobs lives in Colorado these days but has a vivid memory of the day her son died in Nashville last May. Romello Marchman was 22 years old when he took what he believed to be cocaine.
At the time, Romello had just started a career as an electrical apprentice, but Jacobs could tell the pandemic had taken a toll on her son. Like other young adults, she says he managed through the pandemic by self-medicating.
“He was like a lot of other young adults. He was stressed out and depressed at some point. They’re kids who try to help themselves by self-medicating through a very stressful situation in their life,” Jacobs said.
After several calls from family and Romello’s girlfriend, his father used a spare key to enter his Nashville apartment. That’s where they found Romello on his couch. At first, it appeared as if he was sleeping, but a closer look and his father realized Romello had died. A toxicology report later found a significant amount of fentanyl in his system.
“With it being laced with fentanyl, it’s poisoning. It’s murder. It’s not what they intended to happen which was that they die,” Jacobs said.
Tennessee is one of at least 20 states with drug-induced homicide laws where if you offer someone drugs and they die, you could be charged with second-degree homicide. In 2018, fentanyl was added to the list of drugs that qualify.
Still, Jacobs says the Metro Nashville Police officer in charge of investigating her son’s death, had no interest in classifying the death as murder. The word overdose was used instead and Jacobs says this is far from what happened to Romello.
“They didn’t intend to die. They thought they were taking their drug and that’s why we call it poisoning. It’s murder, it’s not an overdose,” Jacobs said.
Police never caught those responsible for giving Romello the drugs and some say it’s just one part of the limitations behind these laws.
Matt Capelouto is the president of the California-based, Drug-Induced Homicide. He featured Romello’s story on their website.
He keeps a database of where states stand on implementing policies of their own and says he believes these prosecutions work. The trouble he says is that some people may think these laws are only meant to catch the more high-profile criminals when ultimately they should be after all drug dealers.
“People need to be held accountable who are spreading this poison and killing people,” Capelouto said.
Not every jurisdiction recognizes fentanyl poisoning or investigates these cases like murder, so Capelouto says this is one area that could use a more uniform direction moving forward. He says another limitation includes making more people aware of Good Samaritan laws that help to alleviate concerns that you may be held responsible if someone has an overdose in your presence.
“True friends aren’t dealing deadly drugs to their friends. If a true friend is not willing to pick up and call 911 under any circumstance if their friend is dying, that’s not a friend,” Capelouto.
We’re not sure who was responsible for providing Romello drugs last May, although Jacobs says his phone records may be able to fill in the blanks. She says by now it’s too late to access those records to offer her the closure she needs. Instead, she’s focused her attention on the Romello Marchman Foundation where she provides Narcan kits and funding for funeral arrangements of those who lost their lives to drug-induced homicide.
Their biggest challenge hasn’t been getting these kits out but finding enough Narcan to go around. Jacobs says she’s teamed up with the Nashville Prevention Partnership and Street Works to distribute and educate people on how to use the narcotic meant to save someone from an overdose. Just as important now, is helping other families realize this loss can be felt anywhere.
“It does not matter where you live. It does not matter the color of your skin...Don’t think it cannot happen to you. I never thought it could happen to me,” Jacobs said.
Later this week, we will continue our coverage on drug-induced homicide with a look from inside the courtroom. We will sit down with a local district attorney to see how these cases are prosecuted and if they truly are making a difference. We will also hear from one group that says that prosecution may not be the best answer and may ultimately land the wrong people behind bars.