A teenage girl from Tennessee is facing murder charges after two of her classmates died of suspected drug overdoses—the latest in a string of similar cases that critics say will only exacerbate the overdose crisis.
According to Fayette County Public Schools, two girls, aged 16 and 17, died on May 16 following “an incident outside Fayette-Ware High School.” Another 17-year-old girl was taken to the hospital and placed in critical condition. The girls were found in the school parking lot a few hours prior to a graduation ceremony.
As ABC News reports, the surviving 17-year-old was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and possession of a controlled substance. She has not been named by officials.
While authorities have not released the identities of the deceased girls, or their causes of death, the father of one of them, Mark Thorne, identified his daughter to WREG-TV.
“She had a lot of hopes and dreams man, that is now just a dream,” he told the news station, adding his daughter had been living in foster care.
Thorne’s family has started a crowdfunder for the girl’s funeral.
The mother of the girl charged with murder died on Sunday after being rushed to the hospital, though the cause of death has not been released, according to WREG-TV.
District Attorney Mark Davidson told ABC News that it’s “unusual” for a minor to be charged with murder over a drug overdose. But this isn’t the only time so-called drug-induced-homicide cases have resulted in teenagers being charged as adults—and drug policy experts say it’s making the crisis worse.
“Behind the smokescreen of ‘holding someone accountable,’ prosecutors are increasingly manufacturing such homicide charges against friends, family members, and partners of people who die of accidental overdoses,” said Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University professor of law and health sciences who leads the Health in Justice Action Lab. “This does nothing to prevent future deaths, while sending a powerful signal that discourages people from seeking help.”
As VICE News previously reported, a 15-year-old Wisconsin girl was charged as an adult with reckless homicide for allegedly selling another teen fentanyl that caused him to die of an overdose. The girl told police she sold drugs to pay off a drug debt and she’d been addicted to opioids.
A 17-year-old boy in Ozark, Missouri, was charged as an adult with second-degree murder in December after being accused of providing a teen girl with drugs that led to her fatal overdose.
Grey Gardner, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, said these prosecutions ignore research on adolescent brain development and addiction.
There can be a significant difference between trying a minor as a juvenile versus an adult, Gardner added. Youth who remain under the court’s supervision until they are 21 “should be entitled to educational services and may also receive therapeutic services.”
Gardner said youth delinquency records are treated as confidential in most states, though some have exceptions. Youth tried as adults can be subject to the same criminal punishments and prison time as adults.
Teen overdose rates doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last April. The spike is due to the ubiquity of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply, the study found.
“Going after children who are using drugs together, or even selling them for their own use, not only adds to the trauma this child must be experiencing, but it’s going to drive others to be even more secretive, be more fearful of calling 911 in an emergency, and more disengaged with services that can reduce risks,” Gardner said.
At least 25 states have drug-induced homicide laws on the books, though charges can be pursued outside those specific laws as well. In some cases, the people charged were trying to help the person overdosing.
Joshua Askins, 42, was charged with first-degree murder in Oklahoma City in April after he called police to help a man he’d been using fentanyl with who appeared to be overdosing.
According to congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of states have Good Samaritan laws, designed to protect people like Askins calling for help during an overdose from prosecution. But the laws vary—some, for example, don’t apply to people on parole or probation.
The Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office did not respond to comment asking why Askins wasn’t protected by Good Samaritan laws.
A report from the Health in Justice Action Lab found that overdoses increase by nearly 8 percent following media coverage of drug-induced homicide cases.