Behind The NYT Investigation into Prosecuting Overdoses as Homicides

Sonya Cradle holds a poem she wrote in memory of her friend Len Bias, during a wake for Bias at a church Sunday evening on June 22, 1986 in Washington. Bias died of an apparent heart attack in his University of Maryland dormitory. (AP photo/Tom Reed)

Last year, I spoke to a former cop and a public health policy expert, both of whom told me that the major failing of the “war on drugs” was prioritizing incarceration over treatment and prevention. Part of the problem today, the former cop told me, was that in many places where opioids are currently leading to deaths, the only resource available is law enforcement. He pointed to the Midwest town of East Liverpool, Ohio, where a photo of two adults overdosing in a car with a baby in the backseat had gone viral. The East Liverpool police chief had told NPR, “We don’t have any resources, and we don’t have a place. Even if somebody comes down here to the station, knocks on the door and asks for help, where do we send them? We have nothing here in our county.”

“Opioid crisis” has become a catchphrase in the United States. The word crisis points to the panic that authorities in government and law enforcement feel about the situation — panic that seems to be spurring a fevered response to the issue.

A recent New York Times investigation looked at the fervor that has seized prosecutors around the country attempting to do their part to address the problem — by bringing homicide charges against the friends, family, and fellow users of people who die by overdose.

“I look at it in a real micro way,” Pete Orput, the chief prosecutor in Washington County outside Minneapolis, told the reporter, Rosa Goldensohn. “You owe me for that dead kid.”

Goldensohn wrote:

As overdose deaths mount, prosecutors are increasingly treating them as homicide scenes and looking to hold someone criminally accountable. Using laws devised to go after drug dealers, they are charging friends, partners and siblings. The accused include young people who shared drugs at a party and a son who gave his mother heroin after her pain medication had been cut off. Many are fellow users, themselves struggling with addiction.

Goldensohn (who goes by Rosie) spent nearly a year exploring this issue, in several states around the country. Longreads spoke to her and her editor, Shaila Dewan, about the investigation and how it came together.

How did you come up with or find this story?

RG: In 2016, I heard New York City’s now-police commissioner, then the Chief of Department, James O’Neill, allude to opening overdose investigations on Staten Island during a City Council hearing. Then last year, I learned that the city was spending a lot of their opioid plan resources on detectives and amping up that approach. I set up a Google alert, “overdose charged murder.” I wasn’t necessarily thinking of doing a national story, but I was getting so many clips from all over that I set up a spreadsheet and started tracking them. I saw a lot of local articles saying, “This is the first such charge in this county,” that kind of thing, so I knew it was an emerging trend.

Shaila, What was your reaction when Rosie first brought this story to you? Did you have any hesitations? Did you immediately know what was needed, or was there more of a process in developing what it would ultimately be?

SD: Rosie’s story pitch was ​like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus full grown. I knew immediately that even though she had not written for us before, it was worth a full-fledged New York Times takeout. It was a staggering trend that had so many implications and said something important about how the country deals with crisis.

In terms of what was needed, what we talked about early on (and what I think Rosie achieved), was giving full voice to all sides of the issue — the accused, the victims’ families, the prosecutors, etc. We didn’t want it to be a gotcha piece; we wanted it to really grapple with responsibility and guilt.

What kind of resources and support did this story require?

RG: A lot. First off, a very experienced and fantastic editor and a supportive desk and institution. Shaila spent a ton of time with me, basically taught me how to do this kind of story while I was doing it. I had never done anything on this scale before and she had the map and knew where we were in the process even when I didn’t. We projected each section on a TV screen and worked through it line by line.

Second, time. Third, money. The Times invested a lot of money in this piece, flying me around to West Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Fourth, a brilliant data team that audited all my numbers and analysis to make sure I was doing it right. Fifth, the lack of desire for any extracurricular activities or social engagement.

SD: We needed time and travel. Time to do way more interviews than we would ever use, to become an expert on something that no one is an expert on yet because it’s too new, and travel to find and go deep with the right examples. Rosie actually went to Hibbing, MN, twice, but I’ll let her tell that story if she wants to.

We also needed to quantify the problem as best we could​. Data is a perennial problem in criminal justice stories because there are basically more than 3,000 local justice systems and many states don’t have reliable, centralized case tracking.

Rosie, can you talk about what you learned from this project, your biggest takeaways?

RG: One of my biggest takeaways is how much of the writing of a long feature like this is done in the reporting of it, getting the kind of details that will bring it to life. As Shaila mentioned, I went to Hibbing twice. I planned to go back secretly for a weekend night with frequent flyer miles because I was looking for a word to describe this town and I felt like I needed to see it again. I had a really nice breakfast at Sportsman’s Cafe and gabbed with the dishwasher there and tried to see the taconite mine but it was blocked off. Hibbing is not only the birthplace of Bob Dylan, but of the Greyhound bus, I learned. The word I came back with was “snowy.”

What were the biggest challenges in making this story happen?

SD: It was extraordinarily difficult to count cases because they were charged under various statutes and sometimes were impossible to separate from other homicide cases. The Times‘s data people and researchers were able to help Rosie clean up her database and determine what data was reliable enough to use. Also, in legal reporting, it’s just incredibly easy to misstep because there are so many finer points.

RG: The analysis of Pennsylvania cases had a lot of logistical pieces, because I needed to get court documents from all these counties and then speak to people involved in dozens of cases, many ongoing. But for me, the biggest challenge was wrangling this massive quantity of material. I interviewed, I think, 15 prosecutors and four are in the piece. I went to a whole trial that’s not in here. What to leave in, what to leave out, in the immortal words of Bob Seger.

Shaila, what advice do you have for reporters who want to undertake a story like this?

SD: Persistence is a good quality. ​I just think that good reporters are determined reporters.