State Attorney Melissa Nelson broke new ground in May with an unprecedented drug prosecution that gained national attention. But it was not the kind of attention Nelson has grown accustomed to receiving.
The same types of academics who endorsed Nelson’s policies on juvenile justice, the death penalty and wrongful convictions criticized the decision by the new state attorney to bring murder and manslaughter charges in the fentanyl overdose of an 18-year-old woman.
This prosecution in Clay County could be an indication that amid an epidemic of opioid abuse Nelson intends to be harsh on drug dealers. In an interview, she said she will seek first-degree murder charges, which carry a minimum of life in prison, for overdose cases when appropriate in order “to keep the public safe from those responsible for this deadly crisis.” This, she said, is the “legal response to the loss of life.”
Yet experts say these prosecutions won’t make the public safer. “It is exactly the opposite of what we generally think of as best practice,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug-policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, when the charges were announced.
Beyond the policy questions, there are concerns over the legality of such a prosecution. While Florida’s murder statute allows prosecutors to go after drug dealers in overdose cases, the statute lists what drugs apply, and fentanyl isn’t specifically listed. Just last week Gov. Rick Scott held a ceremony to celebrate the addition of fentanyl to the law, but that addition will only affect cases after Oct. 1 and won’t impact Nelson’s murder prosecution.
If prosecutors think fentanyl applies under the old law, “they are frankly wrong,” said Paul Doering, a pharmacology professor at the University of Florida who has testified for prosecutors. Other legal experts also said the defense may have a chance to dismiss the murder charge.