SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As fentanyl overdose deaths continued a sharp rise the past few years, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors wanted any tools they could get to try and help stem the tide. They got one in a state law that allows second-degree murder charges if a person knowingly or unknowingly supplies a drug containing fentanyl and the user ends up dying of an overdose.
Prosecutors say the law is as much about leveraging people with information to get to larger-scale suppliers as it is about putting away someone who likely had no intent to play a part in someone’s death.
“You need to cut it off the head to stop the problem,” Second Judicial District Assistant DA Josh Rose told News Channel 11. “So if you go after these drug dealers that are then distributed to the other low-level dealers, we hope to stop that there.”
When News Channel 11 sat down with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) in mid-March, the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force was investigating more than a dozen overdose deaths from 2023 in Sullivan County alone.
Last year, the task force investigated 60 overdose deaths in Sullivan County and 70 in Washington County. The TBI says a third of those were attributed to fentanyl.
“We began looking at dismantling and disrupting drug organizations that were responsible for bringing a lot of the drugs into the area, specifically Sullivan County area,” said TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Chuck Kimbrel. “It took us a while really to get a grasp on just the magnitude of what that problem was.”
A multi-agency task force, the HIDTA includes the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee police departments, the TBI and the Second Judicial District Attorney General’s Office. It was created in 2019.
Dismantling drug organizations inside the region when the supply is mostly from outside is a complex task, Kimbrel said.
“We have an influx right now coming in from Detroit, Michigan, and that’s been our battle,” Kimbrel said. “That seems to be the source city that we’ve been dealing with among cities and Ohio. We’re in a very geographically located area here in Northeast Tennessee. We have a lot of interstate systems that run through our area.”
Kimbrel said time is of the essence in any death investigation, but overdose deaths are particularly difficult.
“You’re talking about developing information in multiple interviews,” he said.
“We have a lot of times a lot of people that are unwilling to cooperate in those investigations. A lot of times when we arrive on the scene, those scenes have already been cleaned up by friends, and family members who might be ashamed to think that their loved one died of an overdose.”
According to the TBI, the number of overdose deaths has spiked in the region over the last few years as fentanyl made its way to the Tri-Cities.
“It’s mixed in with many other drugs, including opioids and non-opioids, that being cocaine, that being pressed Xanax pills, Adderall,” Kimbrel said. “So we’re seeing an increase in counterfeit pills coming into the area.”
Prosecutors say treating those deaths as homicides from the very beginning is crucial for them. That means securing the scene of the death, whereas that wasn’t as typical before a second-degree murder charge was a possibility.
“We have things we’re looking for,” Rose said. “A lot of these are intel-driven investigations. So we’ll collect evidence in that respect. We’ll get statements from people that were on scene and starting that investigation that we’re in the forefront, sort of going back to months later when we get the autopsy and starting again.”
Getting the autopsy results can sometimes take months, and prosecutors want to make sure they have everything in line before pressing charges.
“Sometimes we do get a preliminary autopsy, but we want to get the final autopsy before we pursue charges,” said Rose. “We need to go through records and speak with family members or friends or people that knew about maybe the victim or the potential defendant.”
As fentanyl continues to claim more lives, area prosecutors are pushing for second-degree murder charges in these cases, usually pairing it with the sale or delivery charge.
“Before, you had to prove recklessness, a knowledge (that a potentially fatal dose was involved),” First District Attorney General Steve Finney said. “Say it was an opiate and it was too much and it killed them, well you had to prove that they knowingly [sold or distributed it.]”
The bar is no longer that high, but Rose said bringing the cases before a grand jury is still challenging.
“Just because you’re participating in illegal narcotics does not mean It should be a death sentence,” said Rose. “So I think it’s very important to try to get to what the grand jurors and jurors know, that this was somebody’s mom, dad, sister, brother, and it’s a loss of life and should be taken seriously.”
Finney said his office tries early on to debrief people who witnessed an overdose and are suspected of providing drugs, with the hope of gaining additional information about dealers further up the chain. Without the leverage of a potential murder charge, he said getting them to talk is a complicated task.
“When you get the onus of a second degree they may be more willing to talk at that point. Then you weigh that to see ‘Are you a main dealer? Are you getting it in from Detroit, Knoxville, Cincinnati?’ And then you weigh it. You weigh what you can gain,” Finney said. “In the end, it’s to stop the flow of drugs.”
Nevertheless, even people who aren’t major dealers but have provided a fatal dose of drugs have committed an egregious offense, Finney said.
“You’ve got kids that could be dabbling,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have to be hardcore users and still end up dead. You have to take that into consideration also.”
Both prosecutors say talking the victim’s family through the process is tough.
“It’s probably one of the harder parts of the job because you sympathize with them. And at the end of the day, it could be one of us as a family member that separates us,” said Rose. “And none of us are removed from this — I live in the community, these people obviously live in the community and it hurts.”
Oftentimes, it’s hard to understand that overdose cases take time and that just because someone is charged, doesn’t mean they are convicted.
“I don’t want to give people ‘Oh, it’s all over and done,’ because so many people think a charge means conviction,” Finney said. “We still have a long ways to go.”
A person convicted of second-degree murder would have to serve a minimum 15-year prison sentence, while being convicted of the sale or delivery of fentanyl holds a three- to six-year prison sentence.