A Rhode Island man was sentenced to at least 20 years in prison Wednesday after pleading no contest to second-degree murder for providing fentanyl to a woman who later fatally overdosed on the drug.
In February 2014, Aaron Andrade, 25, sold Kristen Coutu, 29, $40 worth of “Diesel,” a street name for heroin cut with an adulterant. Hours later, police found Coutu dead in her mother’s car.
Through cell phone records and text messages, authorities were able to determine that Andrade was the source of the fatal dose of “pure fentanyl,” according to the Rhode Island attorney general’s office. Andrade later admitted to selling Coutu the synthetic opioid, which can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Andrade initially pleaded not guilty to the subsequent murder charge, but reached a plea agreement with prosecutors this week. Under the terms of the plea, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, with 20 years to serve and the remainder suspended with probation. The state also dropped related drug charges against Andrade.
As the opioid epidemic rages around the U.S., with more than 20,000 overdose deaths attributed to heroin and fentanyl nationwide in 2015, some prosecutors and lawmakers have begun seeking more severe penalties for street-level dealers. Andrade’s murder conviction marked a first for a dealer in an overdose case in the state.
“This is the first time in Rhode Island that somebody who has been charged with and pleaded to murder for selling drugs that led to the fatal overdose of another individual,” Amy Kempe, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, told The Huffington Post.
Andrade was subject to murder charges because he had caused the death of a person through the felony distribution of a controlled substance, Kempe explained. Rhode Island has broader murder statutes than many other states. While first-degree murder typically involves killing with malice or intent, second-degree murder may not.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Kristin Rodgers said Andrade’s case should serve as a warning to anyone involved in the drug trade in Rhode Island.
“It should send a message to drug dealers,” she said of Andrade’s sentence, according to the Providence Journal.
This sort of ‘tough on crime’ approach is ineffective and it hasn’t worked over the last 40 years. Art Way, senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance
The growing severity of prosecutions for dealers has sparked a heated debate around the country, as policymakers in some states work to make it easier for authorities to seek murder charges for overdose deaths. But some critics argue that such an enforcement-focused strategy will only increase opioid-related deaths, while failing to address underlying issues of drug dependency and addiction.
When a drug user overdoses on an opioid like heroin or fentanyl, quick treatment is the best way to prevent death. The line between dealers and users is often blurred in these situations, and the threat of murder charges may make people less likely to call for help.
“This sort of ‘tough on crime’ approach is ineffective and it hasn’t worked over the last 40 years,” said Art Way, senior director for national criminal justice reform strategy at Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the progressive reform of drug laws.
“But people still engage in it because it provides a sort of pat on the back for the judge and the prosecutors to claim they’re doing something about the problem, but in essence they’re only making the problem worse,” added Way.
Research has also shown that targeting dealers with more severe punishment does not actually reduce drug use or supply.
“The supply chain for controlled substances is not ameliorated because a single seller is incarcerated, whether for drug-induced homicide or otherwise,” reads a 2016 report published by the Drug Policy Alliance. “Supply follows demand; not the other way around.”
Additional studies have found that locking up individual drug dealers simply results in a “replacement effect,” in which newcomers fill the absent dealer’s void. The main effect of imprisoning dealers “is merely to open the market for another seller,” one report highlighted.
Coutu’s mother, Sue Coutu, delivered an emotional statement on Wednesday, explaining that her daughter began using opioids while dating a veteran who used the drugs to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Coutu later developed her own struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, and had been discharged from a treatment facility days before her death, because her insurance would not pay for coverage past 30 days.
“She was always so afraid she wouldn’t have a future,” Coutu’s mother told the court.
Andrade also expressed remorse for selling the drugs to Coutu.
“The actions that I did that day, I never meant to hurt nobody,” he said.
He then apologized to Sue Coutu and his own mother.
“I just want to say sorry for both of them,” said Andrade.