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Families call for homicide charges to be filed in fatal overdose cases

We’re in the midst of a heroin and opioid crisis, with people dying from drug overdoses at an alarming rate. As police and prosecutors try to come up with ways to stem the problem, some believe an Illinois law targeting whoever provides drugs used in a deadly overdose should be used more often.

It’s called “drug-induced homicide” and it’s been on the books since 1989, but it’s rarely used in Illinois. In short, it says anyone found guilty of providing the drugs that caused someone’s death could go to prison for up to 30 years. Mothers who have lost their children to drug overdoses say it’s the key to stopping this epidemic, but Chicago police says it’s not that simple.

Amy Nawrocki lost her son to a drug overdose in April of this year. It was the seventh time in the past year and a half that he overdosed. After his death, she says police actually left the drugs behind.

“There was opened and unopened bags of powdery substance that the police officer thought was heroin mixed with fentanyl," Nawrocki said.  "He even said to us, ‘It’s a very dangerous substance’ and that he was close to retirement and  he’s not going to touch it.  He told me to use gloves and Clorox to clean it up.”

Close to 1,100 people died of drug overdoses in Cook County in 2016, compared to 693 the year before.  In Chicago, where more than half the cases were reported, the police department has carried out raids and arrested drug dealers in an effort to cut off the supply.

Still, CPD rarely uses the drug-induced homicide law.  It’s a Class X felony with a penalty of between 15 and 30 years in prison for delivering a controlled substance that results in a person’s death.  It’s a charge Nawrocki wants police to pursue in her son’s case.

But Chelsea Laliberte, executive director and co-founder of Liv-4-Lali,  a non-profit organization, believes drug-induced homicide laws are, "some of the most misguided and misused laws in the country.”

Laliberte’s family founded the organization to help individuals and families struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues.   Laliberte’s younger brother Alex died of a drug overdose at age 20.  She says her family had the opportunity to pursue drug-induced homicide charges in the case, but they found the person who supplied him was in a network.

"They were all doing it together.  So as a moral person, I felt that that was very hypocritical to go after somebody, when my brother was doing the same thing," Laliberte said. "They both had the same opportunity to die.”

Laliberte says drug-induced homicide was originally designed to take down drug cartels, but has instead snagged low-level, nonviolent drug runners, many of which she says are drug abusers themselves.  She believes even the threat of being charged with drug-induced homicide isn’t a deterrent.

In a 2016, in a report titled “Drug-Induced Homicide Laws: A Misguided Response to Overdose Deaths,” the Drug Policy Alliance found in more than 20 states with laws on the books, there’s no evidence they are effective at reducing overdose deaths or curtailing the use or sale of controlled substances.

Terry Almanza is one of the few parents in Illinois to see someone charged with their child’s overdose death.  Her stepdaughter Sydney had just graduated from high school and was headed to college to play volleyball when she died in 2015 from a fatal dose of pure ecstasy. Chicago police originally classified her case as a non-criminal death investigation.

“I called everybody and their brother and I said, ‘Her life mattered and somebody gave her something that resulted in her death. And I want a criminal investigation. I am not going away.,” Almanza said.

16 months later, two people, a 22-year-old man and Sydney’s 17-year-old female cousin were charged with drug-induced homicide. Almanza says she believes every fatal overdose should be treated like a criminal investigation.

"Evidence should be collected, statements taken,” she said.

Nawrocki says similar cases are taking place in collar counties like Will, DuPage and Kendall, but not in Cook County.

"Chicago the fourth largest city in the United States and they’re doing nothing,”  she said.

Some of the collar counties are pursing more drug-induced homicide cases. Records from 2013 to 2016 show: Lake County had 17 cases,  Will County had 15,  DuPage had 14, McHenry had 8 and Kane had 5.   But Cook County, the largest of all five, filed charges in only five cases.

The Cook County State’s Attorney declined WGN’s request for an on-camera interview, but an official says the office doesn’t have a policy against the statute, it just doesn’t get many cases from Chicago police.

In a statement, Chicago police point out:

“Over the last year, CPD has met with suburban jurisdictions to explore criminal charging of murder for those who illegally distribute these lethal narcotics but these cases are exceptionally difficult to prosecute as detectives need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that drug dealers' had criminal intent to commit murder.”

“I think that we all see this as either you go to jail or you don’t go to jail.  It’s not black and white, it’s not cut and dry,” Laliberte said.

She believes rehabilitation is a better way to go through drug and mental health courts because data show they are "very effective."

But parents like Nawrocki and Almanza see it differently.

“If she was hit by a car, there would be a criminal investigation.  So why wouldn’t we investigate it? Because it was a drug? Because she made a bad choice?” Almanza said.

“If you break the law you should serve the time; taking someone else life is the worst thing you can do,” Nawrocki said.