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Man Charged With Homicide For Sharing Drugs With Woman Who Later Died

Under Pennsylvania’s drug delivery resulting in death statute, a man faces up to 40 years in prison for sharing heroin with a woman who overdosed.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Per Swantesson/Stocksy

On Nov. 2, 2016, Shannon Fashian died inside the home of Glenn Perella in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, from a heroin overdose. Fashian’s overdose was treated like a crime scene by the police who searched Perella’s home while medical personnel attempted to revive the 28-year-old.

Even though Perella, 54, tried to save Fashian’s life by administering opioid reversal drug naloxone, calling 911, and remaining by her side until help arrived, the Bethel Park Police Department charged him with felony drug delivery resulting in death. Police said Perella bought heroin for Fashian, who then shared half the purchase with him.

Under Pennsylvania’s drug delivery resulting in death statute, Perella faces up to 40 years in state prison if convicted. In order to be charged with the crime, which is considered a criminal homicide, a defendant has to only provide or sell drugs to another person who used them, overdosed, and died. There is no requirement that the individual who sold or shared drugs ever intended to cause the death.

Drug delivery in death cases fail to stem the overdose tide  

Like many prosecutors in Pennsylvania, District Attorney Stephen Zappala began using the charge frequently in response to a rise in overdose death in Allegheny County. His office brought no drug delivery resulting in death charges in 2016, but 10 cases were filed in 2017 and another six cases were filed in 2018, according to The Appeal’s review of criminal dockets filed in Allegheny County.

Pennsylvania prosecutors like Zappala argue that the drug delivery resulting in death charge is a tool to combat the overdose crisis that claimed approximately 5,400 lives in the state in 2017. Indeed, on Jan. 9, a Pennsylvania judge affirmed a 20-40 year prison sentence for a York County man convicted under the statute for selling heroin to a 23 year-old man who overdosed and died.

But despite the sharp increase in the charges, drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County increased by 13 percent to a record level in 2017.

Public health experts say that charging people with a criminal homicide for sharing or selling drugs is likely to cause drug use to become more isolated and deadlier.

“Fatal overdoses result in part because people use in isolation and because witnesses are reluctant to call 911,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and of health sciences at Northeastern University. “This is why public health efforts like naloxone distribution and Good Samaritan laws try to remove barriers to life-saving interventions.”

Several studies from cities across the United States found that a significant percentage of people who witness drug overdoses delay calling for help or do not call for help at all because they are concerned about the consequences when police arrive, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. For example, a 2003-2004 study in Baltimore found that half of the participants who didn’t call for help when witnessing an overdose failed to do so because of fear of the police.

Gaps in Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan law exploited by prosecutors 

In 2014, Pennsylvania passed a Good Samaritan law that provides immunity from prosecution for people who overdose and, in some cases, the people on the scene when police and medical personnel arrive. When the law was enacted, it was touted by district attorneys as a way to save lives. “If we have a choice between saving a life or prosecuting someone who is with [an overdose victim],” Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli told the Morning Call in 2014, “I say save a life.”

But the Good Samaritan law covers only those charged with possession of drugs and paraphernalia and does not include charges like possession with intent to deliver and drug delivery resulting in death. Pennsylvania prosecutors have exploited this exclusion.

The Appeal reviewed all criminal dockets filed in Pennsylvania in 2016 and 2017 and found 77 drug delivery resulting in death cases filed in 2016 and 184 in 2017. In Lancaster County, at least 30 people were charged under the statute in 2018, a nearly 40 percent increase from 2017 and a 230 percent increase from 2016.

Zappala spokesperson Michael Manko said the office’s use of the drug delivery resulting in death charge is in part a response to public pressure on law enforcement to curb the rise in overdose deaths. Manko said Zappala has helped change police protocol to now require officers to treat every overdose call as a potential crime scene. Every overdose is “thoroughly reviewed prior to a decision to file charges and that decision is based in part on the safety of the community,” Manko said.

But Beletsky called the prosecution of Perella an “especially shocking example of prosecutorial abuse” because when Perella heard Fashian collapse in the hallway of his home, he rushed to her side, administered naloxone and called for help.

“By charging him with this crime, the state is working at cross-purposes with public health efforts,” Beletsky said. “This will discourage others in similar situations from providing assistance, resulting in more overdoses.”