LANSING — Joe Small died of a drug overdose.
Nobody disputes it.
But is the man who sold the drugs to Small responsible for his death? And should he have been accused of causing Small’s death?
It’s a question to which the Ingham County District Attorney’s Office has increasingly answered “no.”
Michigan law allows anyone who supplies certain drugs to another person resulting in their death to be charged with the crime of delivery causing death – colloquially known as “drug-induced homicide” – which is punishable by death. a sentence of up to life in prison.
Standard drug trafficking charges carry no more than 30 years in prison unless someone sells large amounts of the drug, such as more than 1,000 grams. In this case, someone could end up serving a life sentence.
Ingham County used to charge delivery-causing-death cases more often, but declined after District Attorney Carol Siemon introduced a policy in January 2021 that called for reducing the frequency of use of the charge .
The Ingham County District Attorney’s Office has used the charge nine times since 2017: four times in 2017, zero in 2018, two in 2019, three in 2020, zero in 2021, and none again in 2022. Siemon took office in 2019. Five of the nine charges were laid during his tenure.
Statewide, the filler has been used approximately 200 times since 2017.
Ingham’s policy says it is not always in the “interests of justice” to charge cases of potential delivery causing death, even if elements of the crime exist.
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Opponents of the charge say it unfairly penalizes drug addicts for accidental deaths rather than actual drug dealers and has no deterrent effect on the number of drug overdoses, according to county policy of Ingham. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said these charges often featured racial disparities in the charge and sentencing. Of Ingham County’s nine counts, five are white and four are black.
Proponents of the prosecution, like Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation founder Terry Almanza, say it doesn’t matter who the law penalizes as long as it holds someone accountable for “trafficking poison for profit.”
Almanza, a retired Chicago police officer, started the foundation after his 18-year-old daughter died of a methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, or ecstasy) overdose in 2015. She was unhappy with the way the police handled her daughter’s death, so she decided to start an advocacy group for others in similar situations.
“It’s almost like saying you’re only going to go after Jeffrey Dahmer, not the people who killed one person,” Almanza said. “I don’t think it should suit anyone, let alone anyone who has lost a child.”
The death of Joe Small
Small sank into heroin addiction after his brother died by suicide in 2015, but his family believed he recovered before his death in October 2019, his father Tom Small said. Joe Small had been to rehab several times and his family thought he was fine, Tom Small said.
Even so, the family “always somehow prepared for that bad news ‘he’s in jail’ or dead phone call,” Tom Small said.
When he died, Small had three variants of fentanyl, a Xanax-like drug, marijuana, and kratom in his system. The amount of fentanyl Small had in his system would be ‘devastating’ for someone who had no experience with the drug, said George Behonick, a forensic toxicologist who testified at the trial of the man accused of selling drugs to Joe Small.
Prosecutors have charged a man with delivering or manufacturing a controlled substance in connection with Joe Small’s death. They chose not to add the charge of delivery causing death, but made a note in the documents to indicate that drug trafficking led to Joe Small’s death.
Tom Small said it is unfortunate that politics played a part in the man being charged with a less serious offence. In the end, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Clinton Canady III returned a directed verdict, meaning he didn’t think prosecutors had provided enough evidence to prove their case on the lower charge and dismissed it. It cannot be recharged. Because the man is no longer charged, the State Journal does not name him.
Canady’s directed verdict frustrated the family, Tom Small said, as they expected a jury to make the decision.
The ongoing case has also been difficult as it has not allowed the family to go through the natural grieving process and move on, Tom Small said. But they wanted justice for Joe’s death, he said.
Avoid harsh penalties
Siemon said the policy attempts to hold people accountable for their actions without using a heavy hand. Prosecutors examine the circumstances of each case individually.
“It is this individual look at the facts and circumstances of each case and individual charged with a crime that we believe creates the best opportunity for justice for victims, the public and the accused and enhances the credibility of the criminal justice system’s response to the more nuanced approach to drugs demanded these days,” Siemon wrote in an email.
Siemon said his office has been researching best practices for several years. Chris Martin, an attorney at the Ingham County Office, wrote the new policy and was part of a task force that created a toolkit to manage drug use in a way that advances public health .
If a drug deal results in a person’s death, the sentencing guidelines will be higher than for typical drug delivery cases, according to Ingham County policy.
Still, it’s still less severe than a sentence for childbirth causing death, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
“There have been red flags around these types of cases for as long as [Siemon] has been in office,” Martin said. “I think it’s safe to say that we give a higher degree of review to these cases than some offices do.”
Siemon’s office only blames delivery causing death in the most extreme cases, including those involving “unscrupulous drug traffickers, cases of exploitation beyond the usual parameters of illegal drug trafficking, and cases with an explicit disregard for human life,” according to the policy.
If someone is a friend or family member and shares drugs socially, they are unlikely to be charged with childbirth causing death, according to the policy.
Eaton and Clinton counties do not have a drug-related death policy. Clinton County District Attorney Tony Spagnuolo said if he thought there was enough evidence to prove the case, his office would charge him.