Overdose trial is unique
HUNTINGTON -- More than 450 people have died from drug overdoses in Cabell County since 2001, but the case of Racheal Diane Chaney will be the first to be prosecuted as murder, leaving some asking why her.
Authorities explain the 28-year-old's case presents unique evidence.
That's little comfort to other families, some of whom already contacted Huntington Police Lt. John Williams only to walk away with frustration and disappointment being told investigators lack direct evidence to tie a specific dealer and drug supply to their loved one's death.
Williams, investigating such deaths dating back to a series of black-tar heroin overdoses in 2007, said city detectives look for a direct link with every fatal overdose, but often find themselves unable to navigate with any certainty the maze of numerous dealers and suppliers.
"It's a big link, and very rarely do we find the pins to the exact person responsible," he said. "That's unfortunate, but that's just how it is."
Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers believes investigators found such a link in Chaney's case. They allege a friend, Angela Michelle Jarvis, illegally sold two prescriptions, oxycodone and Xanax, to Chaney and friend Misty Dawn Chapman, who then helped Chaney inject the oxycodone into her bloodstream at a Milton residence.
Chaney later consumed heroin from an unknown source, fell unconscious Feb. 7 at 326 5th Ave. West in Huntington and died at Cabell Huntington Hospital. An autopsy determined each of the narcotics contributed to Chaney's death.
Chapman's attorney, Abraham Saad, argues the murder charge embarks on dangerous territory opening the door to prosecutors getting to pick and choose which overdose deaths deserve such attention. Hammers, three months into his role as county prosecutor, flatly denied the allegation.
"I don't think I'm creating any precedent. I'm attempting to follow the law," Hammers said. "I think we would be entering into dangerous territory if we did not pursue these cases."
State murder statute
Authorities are prosecuting Chaney's death with West Virginia's felony murder statute, also referred to as murder during the commission of a felony.
The law, expanded in 1991 to include the manufacturing or delivery of a controlled substance, differs from first-degree murder in that prosecutors need not prove malice, premeditation or intent to kill, but only that a person died because of another's drug transaction.
Both versions, however, carry the punishment of life in prison.
That's less than other crimes, such as the 10- to 40-year sentence for death of a child by a person in a position of trust, 3- to 15-year sentence for child neglect resulting in death and 2- to 10-year sentence for driving under the influence causing death.
Fayette County prosecutors successfully used the felony murder statute to convict a father in 2010 of murdering his son by injecting the 14-year-old with oxycodone.
The state Supreme Court by unanimous opinion upheld the conviction two years later. It found the father's statement, to another witness that he "shot ... up" his son with oxycodone, sufficient when considered with similar evidence.
Hammers now looks to use that conviction as a basis for prosecuting Chapman and Jarvis.
Saad contends the Fayette case involved child neglect and relied upon a different set of facts, though court documents associated with both cases note the purchase and injection of oxycodone.
"I think there needs to be a very strong, distinguishing factor or characteristic that we label between drug users and drug dealers," Saad said. "I believe what the prosecutor has done is fail to make that differentiation."
What about other cases?
Saad points to another overdose death within weeks of Chaney's to advance his argument that charging his client opens the door to pick-and-choose prosecutions. He did not provide specifics, but said the case he cites involved a Cabell County Sheriff's Office investigation wherein a friend or family member injected the deceased prior to that person's fatal overdose.
"The facts were eerily similar yet not prosecuted," he said.
Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas was unaware of such a case, though Saad said it stands as just one of eight to 10 cases under review by his office in a three- to five-county radius.
"I think it's more common than people want to admit that users together help each other inject," he said. "Our laws, and this country, work best when they're consistently applied to all the people that it affects."
And there's the potential for hundreds more cases, according to the most recent data released Friday by the state's Health Statistics Center.
It states an estimated 468 drug overdose deaths have occurred in Cabell County since 2001. That tally includes 64 deaths involving heroin through 2013 and 118 deaths involving oxycodone between 2001 and 2012, two of the three drugs involved in Chaney's death.
Heroin statistics have drawn particular attention locally starting with a potent supply of black tar heroin in 2007 that killed seven people in Cabell County. Brown heroin took its place years later with a total of nine deaths in 2011, 11 in 2012 and a preliminary report indicating 23 in 2013, according to Friday's release.
Authorities also have focused on prescription drug overdoses in relation to various pill mills in the region, including that of Dr. Anita Dawson of Milton.
The state Board of Osteopathy stripped Dawson of her medical license amid its investigation that alleged her practices caused or contributed to eight overdose deaths, as well as an April 2009 vehicle crash that killed a mother and two teenagers near Barboursville.
But at no time has either the heroin overdoses or Dawson's actions led to a murder charge such as that filed this month against Chapman and Jarvis.
The closest accusation came from federal prosecutors who secured at least three indictments alleging heroin distribution resulting in the death. Those charges, representing two of the seven who died during the black tar heroin overdoses of 2007, were eventually dismissed in exchange for guilty pleas to reduced, distribution-only charges, though prosecutors contend the deaths were considered in pushing for enhanced sentencing.
Fighting heroin problem
Hammers said he did not make charging decisions involving the prior overdoses and made no comment as to his predecessor's philosophy. He also said an identical case against Dawson would be impossible because of to her role as a licensed physician at the time.
With that understanding, however, Hammers vowed under his direction the office would pursue felony murder charges anytime investigators present his prosecutors with direct evidence that a specific delivery led to a specific death. That includes any unresolved cases, such as those in 2011 and 2012 when heroin overdoses began to mount once again.
Hammers, in response to further questions, said his office would inquire with Huntington Police about its knowledge of any such cases, though Huntington Police Cpl. Ryan Bentley and Williams indicated none exists.
"The abuse of heroin and other drugs is hitting every community and every family at an alarming rate," Hammers said. "We have to step in and do all we can to prevent drug abuse and especially death by overdose. When I get a set of facts regarding drug abuse or drug-death overdoses, I intend to charge the maximum that the law allows me to charge."
Williams and Bentley joined Hammers in saying state law gives them no alternative method of prosecution in Chaney's death. Williams said he would welcome another option saying another law with lesser punishment could be more appropriate depending upon the situation, though Hammers said no alternative is needed, insisting prosecutors already have the one option they need -- felony murder.
Follow reporter Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.
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