CONCORD, N.H. – When Kevin Manchester was arraigned on charges of selling drugs in February, prosecutors alleged he knew his buyers were overdosing but he kept selling anyway.
In a fresh indictment announced Monday, the 27-year-old is being held responsible for the death of Michelle MacLeod, who overdosed in January on fentanyl he allegedly sold her. The charge is called "death resulting," and it carries a potential life sentence but doesn't rise to the level of murder.
It comes as the New Hampshire Attorney General's office mounts an aggressive effort to make dealers criminally liable for deaths from the drugs they sell.
"If somebody knows what they're selling is deadly, I don't see it as a lot different than selling poison to somebody," Attorney General Joe Foster said.
Foster's office announced efforts to treat overdoses as crimes roughly six months ago, and MacLeod's case is one of at least 40 that have been referred to his office for a criminal investigation since. No one has been charged with murder, but Foster said someone could be if the right evidence exists. Both murder and death resulting charges carry potential life sentences with the possibility of parole.
The death resulting charge isn't new; how frequently New Hampshire police and prosecutors use it is. Foster expects the number of cases to grow after a training effort begins in June to teach police officers statewide what to look for at crime scenes to link dealers to the deaths. But critics say pursuing criminal charges against dealers, many of whom are addicts themselves, is a step in the wrong direction that continues a failed war on drugs.
Deaths from fentanyl in particular are on prosecutors' radar. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful than heroin, contributed to 280 of the state's roughly 430 overdose deaths in 2015. Investigating deaths as crimes may also help generate evidence to crack down on distribution channels, prosecutors said.
Similar efforts are underway in New Jersey. The Ocean County prosecutor's office has pursued manslaughter charges in 23 drug overdose cases since 2013, prosecutor Joe Coronato said. The initiative began "out of desperation" after 112 people in the county died from drugs in a single year, he said. He said law enforcement is just one piece of the puzzle in fighting the drug crisis, alongside providing adequate prevention, treatment and recovery services.
"We want people to know that they're going to be accountable for their actions," he said. "Even if somebody is a small-town dealer, we're still going to hold you accountable."
Criminal defense attorney Cathy Green argues that's the wrong approach.
"Prosecuting addicts is not the way to deter or solve the opioid epidemic," said Green, a Manchester-based attorney who has represented defendants in drug cases.
She said there's a difference between addicts who sell and use as part of the cycle of addiction versus high-level drug dealers. She cautioned against using money and resources to strengthen enforcement against low-level drug dealers rather than providing more treatment options.
"Just because you can charge somebody doesn't mean that you should," she said.
Agati and Foster said a dealer's personal circumstances would be taken into account during the sentencing phase.
Manchester, the latest New Hampshire resident to face a death resulting charge, will be arraigned Thursday in Nashua. The prosecutor at his February arraignment on other drug charges said Manchester was a "danger to the community as well as himself," according to the Nashua Telegraph.
Manchester, for his part, told the court he wants help and would go to a treatment program if given the chance, the newspaper reported.
"I'm just an addict," he said. "I don't want to live this life."