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In an Upstate New York Community Wracked by Overdoses, Prosecutor Pursues Users in Homicides Cases

A billboard in Broome County, NY
DA Steve Cornwell / Twitter

In an Upstate New York Community Wracked by Overdoses, Prosecutor Pursues Users in Homicides Cases

In August 2017, 29-year-old Richard Gaworecki of Union, New York trembled as a Johnson City Village Court judge read charges that included selling heroin that led to the death of Nicholas McKiernan, 26, that July.

About one month later, Broome County District Attorney Steve Cornwell, assisted by his first ever “overdose investigator,” upgraded Gaworecki’s charges to include second-degree manslaughter. For Gaworecki, the manslaughter charge meant that he faced 14 years in prison instead of four.

“Whenever we can, we separate out dealers and users,” Cornwell said. “That’s the goal. But when someone is selling drugs that kill somebody, then they can expect to be charged. We’re going to find those people and target that investigation to get to the root of the crime.”

A Broome County attorney with direct knowledge of Gaworecki’s charges, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the case, told The Appeal that Gaworecki was a heroin user, not a drug dealer. “I believe the underlying drug deal here was the result of Gaworecki supporting his own habit,” the attorney said. “I also believe that the proposed manslaughter charges against Gaworecki were completely unjust and politically motivated by the ambitions of District Attorney Cornwell.”

Public health activists and families who have lost loved ones to overdoses in Broome County are growing increasingly critical of Cornwell’s approach to “treat overdose deaths as crime scenes.” Out of over 95 overdose deaths in 2016, 84 have become potential homicide investigations, according to local news reports. Cornwell’s critics say that most of those designated dealers are actually users themselves who, like Gaworecki, sell small amounts of drugs to their peers to support their habit, and that locking them up is counterproductive. The number of overdose deaths in Broome County, which jumped 55 percent in 2016, appears to support that argument. There were just 10 fewer overdoses in 2017, according to Cornwell’s final count.

“Our elected officials’ actions do not match their words,” Broome County resident Alexis Pleus told The Appeal. Pleus started Truth Pharm, a nonprofit that helps families deal with the legal consequences of addiction, after losing her son to an overdose shortly after he was released from jail in August 2014. “At every turn, it seems District Attorney Cornwell promotes arrests while saying, ‘We can’t arrest our way of out of this crisis,’” she said.

Cornwell’s office did not return multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.

Pleus and other Broome County advocates argue that resources that could otherwise be spent on substance abuse treatment and keeping people alive are instead spent on lengthy and expensive law enforcement investigations.

In July 2016, over 100 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers conducted a drug raid as part of “Operation Get Money” that resulted in one of Broome County’s largest seizures of heroin and cash — 2,700 bags of heroin and $38,000. “These people are not replaced in a matter of hours, contrary to what you hear other places,” Cornwell said about the alleged dealers arrested in the raid. “We have had a significant impact on the heroin trafficking in Broome County. No one fills their shoes that quickly, it’s not how it works.”

Despite the DA’s claim that the multi-agency raid impacted local heroin trafficking, August saw the most overdoses of 2016. A recent study from Pewthat analyzed state drug imprisonment rates helps explain why that’s the case: “The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.”

And in February 2018, Cornwell boasted on Facebook that for the first time in five years, one month went by in the county without any fatal overdoses. Several commenters were critical of the boast about such a serious public health issue and some found their comments deleted by Cornwell’s account. One aggrieved commenter noted that there are only 28 days in February, and that a 29-year-old military veteran and Broome County resident named Matthew John Titman died on March 2 after overdosing the previous day.

“Our District Attorney has used drug overdoses and even the death of our children as an opportunity to ramp up criminalization and incarceration,” Truth Pharm’s Pleus said, “and neither of these have anything to do with a public health approach.”

Gaworecki’s manslaughter case was recently dismissed by Judge Kevin Dooley, citing the fact that the grand jury wasn’t given proper instructions about the charges. According to the state’s manslaughter statute, Gaworecki would have had to have ignored a “substantial … risk that another person’s death will occur” and the judge determined that there was no evidence that Gaworecki was aware of the potency of the heroin he sold. Indeed, during an interview with detectives, Gaworecki said that he told McKiernan, the overdose victim, to be “wicked careful” with the drugs he sold him.

Despite the evidence that Gaworecki was a user supporting his habit — he was even caught with a syringe — Cornwell appealed the judge’s decision to dismiss the grand jury indictment. Gaworecki is now facing up to nine years for criminal sale of a controlled substance and for possessing a hypodermic instrument.

“It’s time to save local addicts from the drug epidemic plaguing our community,” Cornwell said in 2016 when he announced a partnership with Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI), a program in which “committed police departments” encourage opioid users to seek recovery.

But Cornwell did not apply PAARI’s approach — which rejects the idea that law enforcement can “arrest our way out of the problem of drug addiction”—to Gaworecki, who was seemingly just a drug user trying to survive.

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