MILWAUKEE — As overdose deaths rise in Milwaukee County and across the country, so does the number of prosecutions connected to those deaths under a charge called drug-induced homicide.
Wisconsin is one of the leading states in the country to charge people with this. But some say the laws are targeting the wrong people while others say not enough people are being charged.
TMJ4 News takes a 360 look at the drug-induced homicide law, looking at a variety of sides connected to the issue. We talk to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office (MCMEO) about overdose death numbers, a lawyer studying the effects of the drug-induced homicide laws in the country, and a woman who went to prison after being convicted of drug-induced homicide, as well as a mother who lost her son to drugs. That's where we begin.
"I know Nik did not want to die. I know that. Nik did not want to die. Obviously, he was robbed of his life,” said Brooke McKearn.
McKearn is a Janesville mother and one of the thousands of family members in this country who has lost a loved one to drugs. Her son Nikolas Barrett Graves died from drugs when he was 23 years old.
“When his autopsy came back, there was not a trace of morphine or heroin in his system, it was pure Fentanyl so whoever sold that Fentanyl or heroin to my son obviously knew that it was Fentanyl,” said McKearn.
Nikolas Barrett Graves went to school in Janesville. His mom says he was smart and funny and he had an addiction to Xanax. They sent him to a treatment facility in Florida, but afterward, she says he tried what he thought was heroin and died. She now advocates for more drug-induced homicide prosecutions and she’s part of the Drug-Induced Homicide Foundation.
“The dealers are knowingly doing this for profit. We are losing an entire generation for money,” said McKearn. "If we have stiffer penalties, stiffer charges you are not just going to deal Fentanyl like it is Pepsi-Cola and hand it out like it is candy. Fentanyl poisoning is murder, it should be treated as such."
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office's forensic technical director of the toxicology lab Sara Schreiber says the same drug that killed McKearn's son is wreaking havoc on the community. On Memorial Day weekend there were 11 drug-related deaths in the county, and six in just 24 hours.
"It all really boils down to potent opioids, whether they be synthetic or natural. However, they're consumed, the baseline finding in these cases is an opioid. So, it was heroin for a while, now it's fentanyl,” said Schreiber.
From 2019 to 2021, there has been a 53 percent increase in drug overdoses in Milwaukee, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office.
"Every one of these cases that we're investigating, that's somebody's life that we're investigating. We never lose sight of that,” said Schreiber.
Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have drug-induced homicide laws on the books, including Wisconsin. The Badger state ranks number three in the country for drug-induced homicide prosecutions. Northeastern University School of Law Health in Justice Action Lab senior fellow Jeremiah Goulka has been studying drug-induced homicides for years.
“We were finding these prosecutions starting to happen more and more frequently, under the guise of going after major traffickers, or you know so-called kingpins but instead targeting fellow users,” said Goulka.
Goulka, director of justice policy and attorney, says prosecutions have skyrocketed, from just 43 cases in 2008 to 680 in 2018. A major concern he is seeing is that a disproportionate number of minorities are being prosecuted. Across the country, Goulka says about 50 percent of cases involve a person of color being charged. According to the U.S. Census, only 24 percent of the population is a person of color. That number drops even further In Wisconsin where only 13 percent of the population is a minority.
"Generally speaking, about half the time the accused disproportionate amount of time, the accused is a person of color and that's particularly happening in a situation where a dealer is being the target of an arrest or prosecution,” said Goulka.
Morgan Godvin says at 24 years old she was a military veteran, as well as a part-time college student, and part-time delivery driver. She also was addicted to heroin. She was charged with drug-induced homicide after her best friend died. She says prosecutors called her a dealer.
"My friend Justin texted me looking for a gram and he was asking me to middleman it. But just by coincidence, because my mom had just passed, I had it in my bag, and so I sold it to him out of my bag. And he went home and he overdosed and died,” said Godvin.
Morgan took a plea deal and served five years in prison. In Wisconsin, the drug-induced homicide charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Morgan is now clean and founded the group Beats Overdose, which helps provide Narcan, which stops an overdose while it is happening. She also advocates for the repeal of the drug-induced homicide laws in the country.
"We cannot punish our way out of a public health crisis. We know statistically that these laws do not reduce the rates of overdose (and) in fact increase them as they make people more and more afraid to call 911 during a medical emergency,” said Godvin. “We can either wait for harm to occur, and then find someone to blame and punished for it, or we can invest in upfront prevention. I choose prevention because I don't want to bury any more of my friends."
If you or someone you know someone needs help with substance abuse, you can call the national mental health and substance abuse hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They can also refer you to treatment centers.