Police, prosecutors talk stricter penalties for overdose death cases


GREENFIELD — Days into the new year, a 16-year-old Greenfield boy was found dead in his friend’s bedroom from a drug overdose.

That friend, Anna Southgate, would eventually admit to giving Jacob Root the drugs that killed him. She searched the internet for advice on how to help Jacob as he got “too high,” but she never called 911. This week, Southgate pleaded guilty to two felony charges and was given a 12-year sentence.

But if presented with the same set of facts today, Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton would be able to charge Southgate under a new law that holds drug dealers accountable if the substances they provide cause a person’s death. The law was approved by the Indiana General Assembly this year, and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law.

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The crime is now a Level 1 felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years — nearly three decades more than what Southgate was ordered to serve.

The bill that ultimately became law was introduced by state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, who saw the need to toughen penalties as a new tactic in the ongoing battle against illegal drugs. Too many Hoosiers, he said in a news release, are losing members of their families to overdoses. Those who play a role in those overdoses need to be punished, he said.

Jacob died on Jan. 3; the bill was introduced Jan. 11. By March, it had been signed by the governor, and the new law took effect July 1.

Greenfield Police Detective John Cutler, who was the lead investigator in the case against Southgate, said he was pleased when he first learned stricter penalties had been put in place.

As the opioid crisis has deepened, Cutler and other local detectives have seen firsthand the trauma and heartbreak families have faced. This new law, with its new charges and demands for more prison time, felt like a more fitting punishment for those who were putting drugs into the community that were taking lives. Southgate pleaded guilty to a Level 4 felony charge of dealing a narcotic and a Level 5 felony count of reckless homicide. Those are much less serious charges.

“Finally, we have a sentence that fits the crime,” Cutler said.

The change to Indiana’s law is reflective of a trend nationwide to crack down on such crimes, Eaton said. He recently collaborated with 32 other prosecutors and district attorneys from across the country to come up with a list of recommendations for dealing with the opioid crisis at the state and local level.

Eaton was the only prosecutor from Indiana selected to join the working groups, which was organized by the National District Attorneys Association. Stricter punishments and increased prosecution for those who deal drugs that kill was one of the 17 recommendations for enforcement, prevention and treatment reached by the committee.

The National District Attorneys Association’s report calls for police departments to treat fatal overdoses like homicides — which local police say they do already — and send out trained detectives to investigate them.

Specifically, to ensure good prosecution, the attorneys association suggests investigators take special care in collecting the victim’s cellphone. This can be a critical piece of evidence as many drug users will have engaged in a series of phone calls or text messages with a drug dealer shortly before death.

Without Southgate’s cellphone, Greenfield police would only have had the woman’s statements about what she and Jacob did the night before he died, Cutler said. The technology revealed a vastly different set of circumstances than what Southgate had reported, he said.

Southgate admitted to police that she showed Jacob how to inject heroin and then watched as his skin grew paler and he got “too high,” according to court documents. Her phone revealed that, as she watched Jacob overdose, Southgate used it to do a series of Google searches, including “what to do if your friend has overdosed” and “the dying process.”

The heroin Southgate gave Jacob was laced with fentanyl — a synthetic opioid-based painkiller that is more than 50 times more potent than morphine.

An autopsy revealed Jacob had 10 times the amount of fentanyl the human body can typically withstand, records state.