As the president and attorney general push for use of the death penalty for drug traffickers in federal cases, Lee Darragh said the war on drugs “hasn’t really worked” and the death penalty is a difficult pursuit.
“It would be very difficult, it seems to me, for a jury even on the federal level to impose the death penalty when (a death has not occurred),” said Darragh, the Northeast Judicial Circuit district attorney serving Hall and Dawson counties. “It is a difficult decision for juries to make in the first place.”
With more than 42,000 deaths nationwide from opioid overdoses in 2016, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday the epidemic has “inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering and death on communities throughout our nation.”
“It is appropriate to be very serious about the prosecution of those who would peddle drugs of any kind because of their dangerous nature and the injury and death and heartbreak to families that drugs cause, especially when illegally obtained,” Darragh said.
President Donald Trump’s plans to address the crisis includes the Department of Justice seeking the death penalty against drug traffickers in certain instances.
“Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal,” Sessions wrote in a memo to federal prosecutors.
Sessions said that would include capital punishment in appropriate cases where the death penalty has been authorized, including statutes on “certain racketeering activities, the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime, murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprisAs the president and attorney general push for use of the death penalty for drug traffickers in federal cases, Lee Darragh said the war on drugs “hasn’t really worked” and the death penalty is a difficult pursuit.e and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.”
“Pursuing the death penalty is a very time-consuming, expensive process and should be used only in those cases that are the most appropriate for its imposition, like multiple homicides, murder for hire, murder of a police officer (and) several different kind of examples that are set forth in Georgia statutory law,” Darragh said.
In Hall County, 200 people are called in for a typical jury week, and each person is paid $40. Court officials said a felony trial lasting five days could cost more than $5,000 per week.
“The war on drugs hasn’t really worked, it seems, and it will be important over the decades to come — because it will be a continuing problem — to do everything that we can as a society to reduce the demand for drugs through whatever programs are available in society in the homes, in the churches and social agencies,” Darragh said. “As the demand disappears, then the drug traffickers will, too.”
Darragh said one assistant district attorney in his office serves as a liaison to the federal court, a relationship he said helps move cases between state and federal jurisdictional lines. But Darragh said he currently has no cases under his purview that could potentially cross to the federal level and meet the memo’s criteria.
Darragh’s office has tried a pair of cases in the past few years where a person accused of giving a lethal drug to another person was charged with felony murder.
In 2015, a Winder man was accused of giving fentanyl to a friend, believing it to be oxycodone. Casey Trichel pleaded guilty to distribution of fentanyl and involuntary manslaughter, and received a 30-year sentence. Half of that time was to be served in prison.
Trichel was originally charged with felony murder after Joseph Patterson, 25, was found dead on the floor of a Shades Valley Lane home in Gainesville.
In 2016, a jury acquitted Jacob Chance Scarborough, who had been accused of felony murder, distribution of methylone and involuntary manslaughter. Austin Brantley of Flowery Branch died May 2013 from “complications of methylone,” according to Hall County Coroner Marion Merck.
“The difficulty with those cases is voluntary consumption of those drugs. Juries are much less inclined to convict where the person who died voluntarily consumed the drugs that he or she bought,” Darragh said.
Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad Lt. Don Scalia said he hoped it may be a deterrent for traffickers that may see a “higher cost” for continuing the drug trade.
“Maybe that would make them take a second look at it. Again, trying to see things from a drug dealer’s perspective is kind of difficult for most of us folks on the other side of the fence to do, but I can only hope that it would,” he said.
The lieutenant said he believes it will take a multi-pronged approach, from drug courts through enforcement.
The tenets of Trump’s announcement address some of the driving forces of the opioid crisis: reducing demand and overprescription, cutting off the supply of illicit drugs and helping those struggling with addiction.
“It is critically important that we look at the health care prescribing habits of physicians to ensure that we are doing our part to provide and treat pain appropriately,” said Dr. Mohak Davé, emergency medicine physician at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “Regardless of the distribution of it ... if we are not writing prescriptions, then they can’t be out in the community, at least prescriptions of these medications.”
Davé cited recent studies by the Journal of American Medical Association comparing opioid and nonopioid medications, such as acetaminophen. The most common brand of acetaminophen is Tylenol.
One study published this month examined the treatments over 12 months for patients with moderate to severe chronic back pain or osteoarthritis pain in the knee or hip. One group was given immediate-release morphine, oxycodone or hydrocodone/acetaminophen. Another group was given acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
“Treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with nonopioid medications for improving pain-related function over 12 months. Results do not support initiation of opioid therapy for moderate to severe chronic back pain or hip or knee osteoarthritis pain,” according to the study’s conclusions.