Agreement will expedite OD cases

Prosecutors aim to hold ‘purveyors of death’ accountable

A partnership aimed at more efficient and effective prosecutions of those who deal drugs that cause overdose deaths has been formed by Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman.

On Tuesday, a Trumbull County assistant prosecutor and an assistant U.S. Attorney were sworn in by Watkins and Herdman, allowing both to work on each others’ cases. Watkins said working jointly on drug cases will ensure that “purveyors of death” who violate federal and local laws are held responsible for their actions.

The Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office has prosecuted five overdose deaths as homicides in the past several years, and Watkins believes overdose death inquiries will benefit from innovative investigation and prosecution strategies.

“With this ongoing cooperation, we will intensify prosecution and hopefully get heavier penalties for those repeatedly selling poison to those addicted to drugs, causing significant harm to the individuals and society,” Watkins said.

In connection with the partnership, Watkins is seeking $360,000 in grant funds for two years through the U.S. Department of Justice to help establish a Trumbull County Overdose Death Prosecution Unit comprised of homicide detectives and narcotics officers from a variety of Trumbull County law enforcement agencies.

The task force would respond to drug overdose deaths to help local police departments conduct thorough and prompt investigations. Prosecutors would then work together to determine the best strategy for prosecution and review each case for appropriate charges.

“We expect this program to be a deterrent to drug traffickers and make it easier to imprison them,” Watkins said. “Part of the solution to the opioid crisis is working on getting drug traffickers — would-be killers — off the streets, along with treatment and rehabilitation and private, public partnerships.”

Partnering with state and local law enforcement is always a goal of the U.S. Attorney’s office, Herdman said, and although there has been collaboration between the Northern District and Trumbull County in the past, this official partnership is the first of its kind.

“We think this will be a really great model going forward,” Herdman said. “We’re hopeful this partnership will yield the ability to target some narcotics dealers in a way that we haven’t been able to elsewhere and ensure that they get the best venue for prosecution.”

Trumbull County has the highest overall overdose death rate in the Northern District, Herdman said, and addressing this is a priority. However, tying dealers to overdose deaths is a daunting task that requires extensive investigation and resources and the connection of numerous dots to effectively prosecute a dealer for a death, Herdman said.

“The reality is proving proximate cause of death is very difficult in some of these cases because typically some of our overdose victims have used a variety of narcotics and it may not be possible for the medical evidence to indicate that one substance in particular caused the death of the person,” Herdman said.

Yet through the partnership, it’s hoped that working such cases as partners will yield more arrests and prosecutions of those dealing in such lethal drugs, Herdman said.

Tribune Chronicle reporter Renee Fox contributed to this story.

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