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The Appeal Podcast: The Cruel Rise of ‘Drug Induced Homicide’ Prosecutions

With special guest host Leo Beletsky, a professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University, and criminal justice reform advocate Morgan Godvin.

Illustration of prisoners in boxes.

In 2014, then 23-year-old Morgan Godvin sold a small amount of heroin to her friend and fellow drug user Justin DeLong, who subsequently overdosed and died. Morgan was charged by the federal government for “drug delivery resulting in death” and served five years in prison––despite Justin’s family pleading for leniency. Now out of prison and majoring in community health education at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, Godvin is on a mission to raise awareness of the hyper-punitive rise of “drug induced homicide” prosecutions. She joins us this week along with special guest host Leo Beletsky, a professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University, to discuss what activists are doing to push back against the latest trend in Tough on Drug Crime cruelty.

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Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page and you can always rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast.

Today we are joined by Leo Beletsky, Professor of Law and Health Science at Northeastern University, to discuss the issue of drug-induced homicide prosecutions. Leo, thank you so much for joining us.

Leo Beletsky: Thanks for having me Adam.

Adam: You’re here to help unpack a very complex issue that you’ve been focusing on for some time, and later we will be joined by someone who’s directly impacted by this subject, Morgan Godvin. Can we start by having you explain her story and the broader legal implications of how she was prosecuted and sent to jail?

Leo Beletsky: Sure, Morgan’s case is an illustration of what is really a nationwide phenomenon, where folks who are using together, one of them provides drugs to the other and that person dies and then the person who provided drugs initially ends up getting charged with homicide murder or manslaughter. So, in Morgan’s case, she’s from Portland, she grew up in less than ideal circumstances, joined the Air Force, was injured and ended up using opioids and her life went off the rails. She was using in a social setting, just like a lot of people do and often times with her best friend Justin. Unfortunately, one time when she provided drugs to Justin, they would trade off oftentimes, but one time when she provided drugs to Justin, he overdosed and died, she was charged with his murder. We found that Morgan’s case is really not unique. So our lab at Northeastern University, the Health and Justice Action Lab, has tracked drug-induced homicide cases and we found that in the context of the overdose crisis you’ve seen a surge in both laws that authorize prosecutions for drug-induced homicide as well as the actual prosecutions themselves. So although the laws have been on the books since sort of the heyday of the drug war, since about 2009 we started seeing more and more of these laws coming online as a response to the overdose crisis and when we looked at the online news stories about these prosecutions, they start to really skyrocket around 2012. So we went from about 100 of these prosecutions in 2012 to almost 1,000 in 2018.

Adam: And these laws, if I’m not mistaken, we first created in the eighties, they were billed as a way to enhance penalties to major traffickers whose production was responsible for the overdoses. I think in most people’s heads, they can morally delineate between a user and a drug dealer, which we sort of view as being this kind of Pablo Escobar, big mansion sort of selling drugs on corners to small children, something we view as not a personal decision, but a kind of moral transgression. Now, when the opioid crisis, what you call the overdose crisis, a better way to put it, but it’s generally known as the opioid crisis, came into the picture and then people started overdosing in record numbers. Like with everything else in this country, the solution became carceral, if I’m not mistaken. To show how tough you were on the overdose crisis we were gonna go after drug dealers. But as you and your colleague Zach Siegel problematize quite a bit is this concept of a drug dealer and what is a drug dealer? As Godvin’s case indicates.

Leo Beletsky: Absolutely, yes. So there’s a couple of ways of looking at this issue. One is from the standpoint of kind of retribution does it make sense to charge somebody with an overdose death when they distributed or sold the drugs to the victim? And that is oftentimes how these laws and the prosecutions are rationalized is we need to go after this person, we need to avenge his death. So those are kind of retribution rationale for it. The issue that I think is where my expertise comes in, where I do research at the intersection of public health and law is that this is done under the banner of overdose prevention. And if we’re thinking about preventing overdoses then this takes on an instrumentality frame. So meaning, how do we use these prosecutions to prevent overdoses? In the context of the overdose crisis, this rationale has become a lot more mainstream and is being repeated again again, in the context of these kinds of interventions, so prosecutors and policymakers are taking on this banner of overdose prevention and saying ‘We’re going to go after dealers’ using this kingpin language, ‘we’re gonna go take big dealers off the street so that our communities are not being poisoned.’ So there’s really a gap between that language and the expressed intent of these laws and prosecutions and what happens on the ground. We found in our research that about half of all cases that we could analyze represent a situation much like Morgan’s where the person who was being charged in the death was by no means that kingpin and oftentimes, it’s not even kind of a dealer. There were folks who were friends, family members or partners of the deceased. And oftentimes, there’s not even a financial transaction because prosecutors treat distribution literally meaning that if you handed the drugs to someone, just shared drugs with someone, you could still be on the hook for their death.

Adam: So, in today’s episode, which has been done in collaboration with Northeastern’s Health and Justice Action Lab we will be joined by Morgan, in just a second now that she’s out of prison on her way to law school and does advocacy around this issue. I’m really excited to hear from her and hear her story and you’ll be joining us for that, so I wanna thank you for setting that up.

Leo Beletsky: Yeah, absolutely, I think Morgan’s case is a really vivid example of the absurdity of these prosecutions and we’re excited to have her join us to talk about the facts of her case and the broad implications for criminal justice and for overdose prevention.

Adam: Morgan thank you so much for joining us.

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, of course.

Adam: So you recently wrote a column in the Washington Post explaining your story. You’ve been very open about it. I wanna thank you for that. In the introduction, Leo and I did a brief recap of your story, but I kinda wanna hear in your own words. Can you give an account of what happened for our listeners and give us an entree into this bigger issue to sort of set the table?

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, so in my early twenties, I started using heroin, and I spent several years addicted to heroin. I’d started using with one of my best friends, Justin, and we just remained really close friends all throughout both of our addictions and he was incarcerated repeatedly, and I watched him struggle with that. And then in 2014, my mom had just passed away, and so for the first time, I had money to buy more than a few hours worth of heroin at a time. And Justin texted me looking for a gram and I sold it to him and he went home that night, and he overdosed and he died. And I found out because the next day, the police broke my door down, put me in handcuffs and told me that I was being arrested for delivery resulting in death, and that’s how I found out that one of my best friends had died.

Adam: And you were charged and convicted with an overdose death.

Morgan Godvin: Yeah. I was pled to a lesser charge so I ended up convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin, but I was still sentenced according to the delivery resulting in death offence level, in sentencing guidelines.

Leo Beletsky: I wanted to talk a little bit about the context of your case and why it is such a heavy illustration of this broader trend is that there’s this overlapping involvement of state and federal law enforcement in response to the crisis and in this case, what was essentially pretty kind of mundane situation, even if you were to be charged with possession or intent to distribute of heroine, normally you wouldn’t see federal law enforcement get involved. So can you talk a little bit about that and how that came to be?

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, so the United State’s attorney for Oregon was actually prosecuting these cases really aggressively at the time, trying to be like front runners, holding trainings, and because, specifically of where he died, so I was in Multnomah County and he crossed county lines, in his apartment was in Washington County, which is known for being much more conservative and punitive, and they had an interagency narcotics team that was automatically forwarding cases for review to the Federal prosecutor’s office.

Leo Beletsky: And so when you’re arrested, you’re arrested by federal law enforcement?

Morgan Godvin: So my case still went to Grand Jury at Multnomah County, so I wasn’t arrested that night. Inexplicably I thought I was being driven to jail and they drove me to a Taco Bell and they took off my handcuffs and said, ‘Have a nice night.’

Adam: Wow.

Morgan Godvin: But I was on probation for possession of heroin, which at the time was a felony and so I knew that my probation officer was gonna get a report that I’d been involved in this, and I went to my check in later that week, and she was like, ‘Wow, I’m surprised you showed up for your check-in.’ Hey, me too. And at the time, we still thought it was gonna be a state case and she told me about these state sort of drug court or diversion programs that I would be eligible for. Then when I finally did get warrants about two months later, I did not turn myself in and I just sort of hid out in a basement room until the United States Marshals came to arrest me. So I did get arrested by US Marshals but I wasn’t sure if that was because I was a fugitive, or if I had a federal case. So, I got arrested with a huge slew of Multnomah County State charges and a United States Marshals hold, but they had the indictment under seal so no one could tell me why I have this hold. I got assigned a State Attorney, my State Attorney was like ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re not gonna go to prison.’ And then he called back a week later and he said, ‘Hey you’re a trailblazer. I’ve never seen this before, but the county is dropping all the charges and it’s gonna be solely a federal prosecution.’

Leo Beletsky: Right. I just wanted to go back to something that you said. Thanks for flushing out the details. You talked about the US Attorney for the district in Oregon where you were arrested kind of being on front lines and being very public about these prosecutions. Can you talk a little bit about that because I think, again, this is one example out of a broader pattern where both federal and state law enforcement has really made this kind of a lynch pin of their overdose response.

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, so even in Oregon we didn’t see any, to my knowledge, delivery resulting in death prosecutions for years and years and then starting in about 2010 or 2011 overdoses went on the rise. I don’t know, we had some young innovative, energetic, federal prosecutor who pulled this law from the eighties out of the books and decided ‘We have this huge problem. People are dying. Well, here I think I found a solution or at least we’re just gonna try this.’ And they just went full bore at it with that, you know, considering it a tool for the overdose crisis.

Leo Beletsky: Yeah, and just to build on that, I think what happened wasn’t necessarily that prosecutors were innovating alone, but in fact, drug deliveries resulting in death became part of the national heroin strategy under President Obama’s Department of Justice and this was integrated into the policy of the Department of Justice around that time, so it was a national push really to start prosecuting in these cases. It may have been that there was individual innovation but this also was a part of federal policy.

Adam: Yeah, that’s important context and I think because it’s so often that these health crises have become criminalized and turn to carceral solutions. This was another example of that. I wanna talk a bit about the ways in which you write about how Justin’s mom did not want you to be tried for his death. This is something I’ve heard over and over again. Danielle Sered at Common Justice has certain polls showing that the victim’s families or the victims themselves when presented with non carceral options of restitution, which in this case I’m not even sure if that applies but most people actually prefer not sending people to jail. So there’s all this rhetoric around victims’ rights and protecting the victim and looking out for the victim but this is a classic example of even the victim’s family didn’t want the prosecutors to do what they did. Can you talk about that experience? Was there any sense that, having them on your side may have changed the outcome or is it just the prosecutors are locked into this rigid ideology and nothing that they say matters?

Morgan Godvin: I think having his family’s support, testifying at my sentencing, writing letters to the judge, reduced my sentence. It did. I got an abnormally low sentence for a federal delivery resulting in death conviction. You know, it shaved a couple of years off, but I was still sentenced to five years in prison when his mom was asking that I do not go to prison at all because she had seen what prison had done to her son.

Adam: Right, yeah, no, that seems to be a recurring motif here. I guess I’m, yeah, I don’t know, it just boggles the mind because, the harm to party does not even have the same, it just sort of shows the mindlessness of it from the prosecutor standpoint. Can you talk a bit about the broader idea of dealer accountability and how, where the gap is between people’s perceptions of drug dealers as this kind of trench-coat-wearing, on the street corner next to the elementary school, or Pablo Escobar living in a mansion versus how people legally define dealer, which oftentimes just comes down to a text message.

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, the gap between what the media portrays in reality is enormous. It’s ludicrous. I mean I was the first person in my family to ever go to jail. So you poll my random white middle class family members — ‘What is a drug dealer?’ — and they’re all gonna give you this perception of really shady nefarious figures like ‘Hey kid, come here, look what I got’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I wish that I could have picked up the phone and bought my heroin from a safe, say a pharmacy, but that’s not the system we have, so we just, it’s just a network. You have all these people in your phone, who either sell heroin or know someone who does, or might sell that day depending on how much money they have. You just start calling people and we just form a sort of extended network, friends of friends and that is how you buy heroin. So most of my quote “heroin dealers” were just like my friends, people who went to my high school, or a friend of a friend. And with one exception, everybody that I bought heroin from was also addicted and no one was in it for profit. I don’t think anybody was like ‘Hey, I’m paying my rent off this’ everyone was like, ‘Well I’m surviving. I’m staying well today, and I might have somewhere to sleep tonight.’

Adam: Right.

Leo Beletsky: Morgan, can you talk a little bit about, from your perspective, oftentimes these prosecutions, and the laws, we should say that there’s kind of two levels of legal intervention here. One is that states have increasingly got new laws on the books to be able to authorize charging people with drug delivery resulting in death or drug-induced homicide or some versions thereof and also that states and the federal government have increasingly pursued these cases with increased intensity and frequency. But from hearing prosecutors and law makers talk about it, this is something that’s being done under the banner of overdose prevention. This is the version of decisive response to what is a growing public health crisis. So can you talk about that and how you see that playing out where you sit?

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, that’s ludicrous. I was addicted to heroin in Portland, both before and after our Good Samaritan law. So I remember before, if you called 911 to save someone’s life, you were gonna get arrested for felony possession and go to jail, and that actually happened. So my boyfriend called 911 to save my life, and he was arrested and given a felony conviction, and fired from his job and then we were evicted from our apartment and that was just possession. So then our Good Samaritan law changed. Now you’re protected from possession charges. So you call 911 to save someone’s life, you’re not gonna get arrested for possession, but now they have this whole slew of laws that they’re charging you with for delivery resulting in death, whatever they’re calling it. Everyone in my network of heroin users knows what happened to me. I was the first person that anyone knew to get convicted of a delivery resulting in death charge. The only deterrent it’s serving is it’s deterring people from calling 9-1-1 cause they saw what happened to me in the federal system, and now they’re terrified, they’re terrified of law enforcement and they know that the Good Samaritan law will not protect them against a murder charge. So, at least in my personal network locking me up, even locking my dealer and his dealer up, no one went without heroin. Not for a single day. There was supply there to meet the demand, so it didn’t reduce anything in that sense, but it did create this very present sense of fear within us, specifically fearing calling 9-1-1. So, when people just need Narcan and that could reverse their overdose, it’s horrible. People are more likely to overdose and die after witnessing what happened to me because they are less likely to call 9-1-1 in a medical emergency.

Leo Beletsky: Morgan, can you, I know that you’ve been doing some work on trying to create a cost-accounting of what it actually costs to basically process and churn your life through the machine of the criminal carceral system. So can you talk a little bit about that process and what you found?

Morgan Godvin: Yes. So me and my co-defendants, were sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison. So, on incarceration costs alone, the Bureau of Prisons will spend $1.2 million. Not adjusted for inflation. There was the initial investigation through Washington County Sheriff Department, and then the whole federal prosecution. I am having a really hard time getting these figures because most of my co-defendants and I were represented most of the time by panel attorneys. Even the ACLU did not know how to help me because these things are not FOIA eligible. So I’ve gotten some figures like really piecemeal still trying to put it all together. It’s well over $2 million for nothing. I mean, they’re putting us all in prison for what game? And how dare they. Oregon consistently ranks one of the last states in access to treatment, we have seven, eight-week long waiting lists in access to treatment, but we can spend $2 million putting people in prison when my friends are still dying. And then again, this session in Oregon, they proposed yet another state delivery resulting in death bill that looks like it’s gonna die in committee, again, thankfully. But why do I keep having to have this conversation?

Adam: Right. So, you have parlayed this experience, I assume, informed by this experience, you’re now moving into the criminal legal reform space. You’re a Community Health Education major at PSU School of Public Health in Portland, Oregon. And I’m curious what work are you doing presently and plan to do in the future to stop the madness? What is your strategy in the near future?

Morgan Godvin: So I’m trying to change the system, the whole system. I saw so much injustice. I’m like a freelance advocate, I do criminal justice and drug policy reform and I just keep injecting myself into spaces where important people are making decisions. 

Adam: Yeah.

Morgan Godvin: And I’m getting pretty good at it, which is kind of weird. I was just appointed to the State’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. So after I get my undergrad, I’m going to law school. In the meantime, I just keep telling my story over and over. I’ve been doing some writing, writing a few articles, but I just officially started writing a book, my book about my life cause it’s like drug policy gone wild. I was arrested for drug possession so many times. Always made to detox cold turkey in jail just to be released back out onto the street. Almost every time they released me I overdosed within a few days which is super predictable. That’s what happens when people are released out of carceral settings and their tolerance is low.

Adam: Right.

Morgan Godvin: So I’m lucky to be alive, but I still have a criminal record that will haunt me forever. But the thing I’m really most excited to be working on right now is there’s a new initiative, it’s a ballot measure in Oregon that would use marijuana tax revenue, that’s already coming in, it’s so much more than anyone predicted it was gonna be, and it would use that money to fund treatment and recovery services all across the state and at the same time, it would remove criminal penalties for possession. Going to jail completely derailed my life when I needed treatment and compassion I got punishment instead and it didn’t make me better, it made me worse. I just kept getting arrested until that night. I sold Justin that gram and he overdosed and died and eventually I went to prison. You know punishment doesn’t make people better. Treatment does. So now there is a measure that would create a more humane, response to substance use. And I’m super excited to be working on it. So I’m doing that. But really I’m a full-time student, mostly I’m a student and I do all that other stuff on the side. 

Adam: Okay.

Morgan Godvin: But the future is looking up, there’s stuff to be optimistic about.

Adam: Morgan, thank you so much for joining us, we appreciate you coming on and telling us your story and I’m very excited to watch your work in this space moving forward.

Leo Beletsky: Morgan, thanks again for coming on. 

Morgan Godvin: Yeah, thank you so much.

Adam: Yeah, that was quite harrowing. I think it’s interesting that she talks about how nobody believes it. It’s a reoccurring thing on the show, where it’s like, I keep being exposed to these things that are, even though I’m cynical, jaded, left-wing, someone who has been in the criminal justice space for two, three years, I’m still sort of shocked by how cruel and arbitrary so much of this is and it’s interesting to hear it directly from someone who’s impacted by it.

Leo Beletsky: What is inspiring about Morgan’s story is that she went in and she served time, she served far less time than the mandatory minimum, the mandatory minimum on the federal sentence enhancement for drug delivery resulting in death is 20 years. She served far less than that as part of her plea deal, but what is so inspiring about her story is that she is using her experience and her privilege or essentially white privilege to highlight the injustice and absurdity of these prosecutions. The reality is that in our research, we actually found that these prosecutions were not being pursued uniformly, that in fact, Morgan is unique because if the situation were different where the person who dies is white and the person who distributed drugs gave or sold drugs to them as a person of color, they’re far more likely to be charged with drug-induced homicide or drug delivery resulting in death than just conspiracy or possession. 

Adam: Yeah, it’s always a hard balance because you definitely do wanna say someone who just spent five years in jail is privileged, but at the same time, it’s a relative concept, right? 

Leo Beletsky: Yeah, and in fact, when we look at the data, we found that there’s on average a three-year gap between the median sentence for white defendants on these charges, versus people of color. So the median sentence for people of color is eight years. The median sentence for white defendants is five years. All these data are summarised on our website, If you go to the dashboard under drug-induced homicide you’ll see a bunch of data visualizations that represent various elements of this growing, surging trend across the United States, including the disproportionate kind of racial dynamics as well as geographically, where these prosecutions are being concentrated, for example, Pennsylvania and Ohio lead the United States in the number of prosecutions that they deploy. And it’s highly troubling because as she talked about, this is being done under the banner of overdose prevention but may paradoxically actually increase a number of fatal overdoses.

Adam: Right.

Leo Beletsky: And we’ve done some statistical analysis that aren’t quite published, but I can say that it looks like in fact, jurisdictions that pursue these charges more aggressively end up seeing larger overdose numbers six months to a year after the prosecutions are announced. So it may, in fact, making the problem that it’s purported to solve far worse.

Adam: Right.

Leo Beletsky: And in addition, cause again, she talked about, and this is why her advocacy on this is so, so valuable and important. If you multiply her case by hundreds, and we’re seeing thousands of these cases per year now across the United States, at least, if you multiply that by the financial figures that she mentioned, by the millions, you’re seeing a pretty major crowding out of investments and things that we know to work. 

Adam: Yeah of course, especially with state budgets, it actually is mutually exclusive because they have such limited resources. 

Leo Beletsky: Absolutely, absolutely, and not only financially, but also kind of in terms of the media oxygen and the policy oxygen when you’re talking about ‘Oh, well, we passed an opioid bill this year, we increased penalties for drug-induced homicide or we have now special penalties for fentanyl distribution.’ That allows politicians and others to proclaim victory and doing something about a problem, when in fact what they’re doing is making the problem worse. So there are multiple levels of danger in pursuing these false promises. This kind of false prophecy of carceral responses to this problem.

Adam: Right. Well, I think that’s a good place to end that. Leo thank you so much for helping out with this and setting everything up. I think this is extremely edifying and hopefully eye opening for the listeners, so thank you so much for doing this.

Leo Beletsky: And thank you to you Adam, and thanks to The Appeal for covering this important topic and for covering many other important topics over the course of the run of this podcast.

Adam: And thanks to friend of the show and your partner in crime Zachary Siegel, who helped write it and set it up as well. So again, you can check out their work at tt the Northeastern Action Lab.

Thank you so much to my co-host Leo Beletsky and our guest Morgan Godvin. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. One quick production note, The Appeal podcast is going on hiatus for a couple of months, we will update you with any changes that are made. In the meantime, thank you so much for all the support and listening to the show. I’m your host Adam Johnson. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer is Craig Hunter. Thank you so much.