PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The mother of a woman who died of a fentanyl overdose after she thought she purchased heroin told a Senate panel Thursday that dealers who sell lethal drugs should be prosecuted for murder, while others warned that the legislation sets a dangerous precedent for addiction sufferers to be jailed for life.
Sue Coutu, the mother of Kristen Coutu, testified that her daughter struggled with an opiate addiction before she died in 2014, but she wanted to recover.
“Some who don’t understand addiction might say it was her fault for asking for the drug,” Coutu said. “But she didn’t ask to die.”
The bill under consideration by the Senate Judiciary committee, dubbed “Kristen’s Law” after Coutu, could impose a life sentence on a person who commits a drug-induced homicide by selling a lethal drug to a person who subsequently dies of an overdose.
The legislation contemplates the complex question of whether an overdose death is an accident or a crime.
Coutu said Kristen had just left a Texas rehab facility in 2014 after her insurance ran out, even though she felt she wasn’t ready to return to Rhode Island. The very next day, she sought out heroin.
“As the dealer drove away with money in his pocket, Kristen used what she thought was heroin and died instantly, alone in a car on a busy street,’” Coutu said. “A parent’s worst nightmare.”
The bill was introduced by Senator Hanna Gallo, D-Cranston, on behalf of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, whose office argues it is necessary to clear up any question of whether drug dealers are responsible for the deaths of their clients.
“There are grey areas,” said Assistant Attorney General Jim Baum. “This provides a more certain prosecution, more certain arrest with respect to drug-induced homicides.”
Baum prosecuted Kristen’s drug dealer, Aaron Andrade, who pleaded no contest to 2nd-degree murder in 2017 and is currently serving a 20 year prison sentence. Baum says Andrade was prosecuted under the state’s felony murder law, which applies to deaths that occur in the process of a felony. Since overdose deaths technically occur after the felony drug sale, Baum said passage of Kristen’s Law would eliminate any legal questions.
Assistant Attorney General Joee Lindbeck told the committee Thursday that the Attorney General’s office would be willing the amend the bill to impose “up to” life in prison for the drug dealer, instead of the mandatory life sentence initially proposed.
The bill is opposed on multiple fronts by drug policy advocates and the Rhode Island ACLU, whose executive director Steven Brown testified against it Thursday.
“It proposes to impose the most serious penalty that can be imposed on people who may not have intended any harm whatsoever,” Brown said.
Others expressed concerns that the law would be used to prosecute other addicts, including loved ones of the overdose victim, who may have sold or provided the drugs to the victim while they were both using.
“What we know is that oftentimes people who are giving or selling drugs to someone are people who are dealing with substance abuse issues themselves,” said Annajane Yolken, the executive director of Protect Families First.
She also said the law could have the effect of instilling fear in a person who would otherwise call 911 while a friend is overdosing, but wouldn’t do so for fear of being charged with murder.
Baum said the bill could be amended to include a Good Samaritan clause to avoid that situation.
Angel Turbides, a Providence resident and convicted drug dealer, told the committee he had reformed his life after serving four years at the ACI, and didn’t see how a lengthy or life sentence would help a drug dealer change his or her life.
“I would just like for other people making the same mistakes that I made in the past to be able to get a chance like I did,” said Turbides. He said he now works as a truck driver.
“They talk a lot about not having to go to jail…and they should get second chances,” Coutu said in an interview after the hearing. “My daughter didn’t get a second chance.”
She said she hopes Kristen’s Law will prevent other parents from going through a tragedy like hers.
“I no longer have the privilege of her smile or her hearty laugh,” Coutu said. “I miss her with all my heart.”