Overdose deaths still treated
ENTERPRISE STAFF WRITER
Linda DeSisto sits at the grave of her daughter, Shannah Duggan, who died of a heroin overdose at their Taunton home in 2005. Desisto says law officials "never once asked where she got the drugs. There wasn't a follow-up."Police found Donald J. Bergeron of Easton lying face up, dead, in a bed at the Fall River house.
The 24-year-old had two syringes in one pocket, and a personal check for $8,481.20 made out to someone else in another.
Police seized the needles, took 24 photos of the scene and interviewed people in the house. The death on Nov. 11, 2006, they concluded, was a drug overdose.
As with most overdose deaths, no one would be charged.
Although the state Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way more than 14 years ago to charge someone with manslaughter in overdose deaths, fewer than a half-dozen have been brought forward in Bristol and Plymouth counties since 1990. Seventy-four people have died of opiate-related overdoses - including heroin - between Jan. 1, 2004 and Aug. 31, 2006, an examination by The Enterprise of death certificates filed in 28 local communities found. Most occurred in Plymouth County.
But while prosecutors say they'll charge suspects if there's enough evidence, some families of the dead say after the body is carted away, the investigation dies.
"No one ever got back to me or asked me anything more," said Linda DeSisto, whose pregnant daughter, Shannah, died at their Taunton home in 2005. "They never once asked where she got the drugs. There wasn't a follow-up."
Mark Dunay, a Plymouth psychologist, said there is a public tendency to blame the victim in an overdose - rather than see it as a potential crime.
"They view it as another drug addict gone as opposed to someone dying of a gunshot. There is a definite pecking order in people's sympathies," Dunay said. "People will step back and say, 'He had a chance to get straight. He had counseling when he was 16 and didn't use it. He had counseling when he was 18 and didn't use it. He had two months in jail and still didn't get straight.'"
Police and prosecutors say that's not how they view it - they investigate the overdoses, but sometimes there's not enough evidence to charge or convict someone.
"It's difficult," said Brockton Sgt. Kevin O'Connell, head of the police drug unit. "You don't usually get stuff handed to you on a silver platter."
The reasons are varied: witnesses won't talk or are unreliable, some crime scenes are cleaned before police arrive, and getting the right evidence to identify the drug supplier is tough, police and prosecutors say. Even getting fingerprints from the narrow needles used to inject drugs can be tough.
And unlike other states, Massachusetts can only charge someone with manslaughter - not negligent homicide. That means prosecutors must meet a higher standard - reckless and wanton conduct - to convict someone of manslaughter in an overdose death, as opposed to just negligence.
In motor vehicle deaths, prosecutors can press negligent homicide charges if they can show the person's actions - such as speeding
- were negligent and caused someone to die, even if the driver didn't mean for it to happen.
A similar type of charge would make it easier to charge more people in overdose cases, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said.
The state Supreme Judicial Court - in clearing the way to charge someone with manslaughter in drug overdoses - noted that heroin is "inherently dangerous" and using it carries a "high probability" of death.
In recent years, Plymouth County charged one person in an overdose death involving GHB, a clear liquid date rape drug; the suspect was acquitted.
In North Attleboro, police charged a 35-year-old man with manslaughter in the overdose death of his girlfriend last December - but the charge was later dropped by Bristol County prosecutors. In Attleboro police charged a 33-year-old man with manslaughter last year after a friend overdosed and died in a County Street basement apartment on heroin he bought in Worcester.
And there are at least two active overdose death investigations in Plymouth County.
But those are the exceptions.
State Sen. Robert Creedon, D-Brockton, said he's looking at what can be changed to make it easier to lodge charges in overdose deaths.
"The dealers are in there to make a buck and they are making a buck on the lives of our young folk," he said.
Maureen Boyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.