On April 5, Jhenea Pratt called 911 from her Pittsburgh home. Her 17-month-old daughter wasn’t breathing.
First responders took the child to a nearby hospital where the girl was pronounced dead. While at the hospital, police said Pratt became “hostile” and “combative” and told them she felt like they were treating her like a criminal.
In August, Pittsburgh police arrested Pratt and charged her with criminal homicide, which carries a maximum possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lab results determined her daughter died of a fentanyl overdose, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Pittsburgh police.
The circumstances around how the child ingested the fentanyl, however, are murky and raise questions about why Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala charged her with criminal homicide, a broadly defined offense.
According to police, the child was in the care of a man they identified as Pratt’s boyfriend, who gave the girl a sippy cup filled with a red sugary drink. When Pratt arrived home from attending classes at a community college, she put the child to bed and placed the cup in the crib.
Pratt told the police that she then smoked marijuana and, about an hour later, went to check on the child. That is when she found her child was not breathing and called for help.
The liquid in the sippy cup was tested and came back positive for fentanyl. It is unclear how the fentanyl got there. According to the police report, Pratt denied putting anything in the cup. “How did the fentanyl get in the cup? I mean, we have some idea,” Zappala told KDKA in August in an interview where he described Pratt as “not helpful.”
Police blamed Pratt, arguing through circumstantial logic that had the child ingested drugs earlier in the day while she was in the care of someone else, she would have died sooner.
The man who acknowledged giving the child the sippy cup has not been charged in this case.
As of late October, Pratt was being held without bail, awaiting a preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence for her case to move forward.
The Appeal contacted Zappala’s office but was told by a spokesperson that the office could not speak about the case beyond what was in the affidavit.
“If you put fentanyl in play and somebody dies, I want to see you go to jail,” Zappala told KDKA.
Such cases—in which a seemingly accidental overdose leads to charges against a friend or relative—are increasingly common. “Amidst broader criminalization of accidental overdose in general through drug-induced homicide prosecutions, there has been renewed vigor in prosecuting pregnant and parenting women with criminal conduct related to tragic deaths of their children from a drug overdose,” Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University law professor, told The Appeal.
The district attorney’s office, like others in Pennsylvania, charges all homicide cases under the general criminal homicide offense, which includes five separate offenses ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Sorting out which offense actually fits the facts of the case is left to a jury, said Michael Manko, spokesperson for Zappala. This can result in defendants like Pratt sitting in jail for months or years. It also gives prosecutors more bargaining leverage in plea negotiations. Facing a threat of life without parole, at least on paper, Pratt may be more likely to accept a lesser charge.
The Appeal reviewed charging records in Allegheny County and found Zappala charged more than 100 people with criminal homicide between 2016 and 2017. So far, only seven cases have resulted in a conviction for first- or second-degree murder—the only offenses that actually carry a life without parole sentence.
Fourteen people had their cases either dropped or were found not guilty, four were convicted of misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, and another 37 were convicted of third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.
It’s noteworthy that Pratt was not also charged with Pennsylvania’s drug-induced homicide charge, called “drug delivery resulting in death.” Allegheny County used that charge 11 times last year alone. Manko said the district attorney’s office believed criminal homicide was the more appropriate charge in this case, which could suggest the office believes the death was accidental because the other charge requires that someone intentionally gave or administered drugs to someone who died of an overdose.
Beletsky said cases like this and a recent case near Philadelphia in which a nursing mother was charged with criminal homicide after allegedly causing her child’s overdose death through breast milk are the result of a panic around fentanyl and other drugs.
They are also counterproductive from a public safety standpoint, he said, because they may dissuade people who use drugs from seeking help when a tragedy strikes, Beletsky said.
While it’s unclear whether Pratt used opioids, her prosecution mirrors a broader trend, Beletsky said. “People who use drugs—especially people of color—have long been dehumanized by the assumption that they do not or cannot adequately provide for their children,” Beletsky said, citing the “crack baby” phenomenon, drug testing of pregnant women, and the termination of parental rights for cannabis use.
“The Pratt case fits into this line of wrong-headed and often racist law enforcement actions that seek to punish grieving parents for accidents involving their children,” he said.