This story was last updated at 5:30 p.m.
The reckless homicide charge filed against an Oak Ridge man in a grand jury indictment after a drug-related fatality could be a first in Anderson County, a law enforcement official said.
Troy Andrew Venable, 29, was indicted in April on a reckless homicide charge in the death of Lauren Alexandra Fritts, 26.
Seventh Judicial District Attorney General Dave Clark said it is, as far as he knows, the first time in Anderson County that someone has been indicted on a homicide charge in a drug-related fatality.
“We want to bring justice in this situation,” Clark said Monday in response to a reporter’s questions.
The grand jury considered a more serious second-degree murder charge, but it did not indict Venable on that charge, Clark said. Instead, the grand jury indicted Venable for reckless homicide. The indictment said that Venable “unlawfully and recklessly” killed Fritts on October 7, 2016.
Fritts, an Oak Ridge resident, was found dead at a home at 116 Tacoma Road shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 8, 2016. Her body was taken to the Knox County Regional Forensics Center for an autopsy, according to the Oak Ridge Police Department.
Clark said he could not disclose the cause of death or the amount or type of drugs involved, and he could not say how the drug or drugs were ingested.
Fritts had a young son, and she was an Oak Ridge High School graduate and former All-State goalkeeper for the Lady Wildcats. Fritts attended St. Mary’s School in Oak Ridge and graduated in 2009 from Oak Ridge High School. She studied at Roane State Community College and East Tennessee State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. At the time of her death, she was the member and customer service representative at the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
Venable was indicted on the reckless homicide charge on April 4. He was arrested April 7 and released from the Anderson County Detention Facility in Clinton that same day in lieu of a $25,000 bond.
Venable pleaded not guilty during an April 28 arraignment. His next court date is scheduled for November 13 in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton.
Defense attorney Mike Ritter, who represents Venable, declined to comment on the case earlier this year.
Authorities in other jurisdictions and other states have brought second-degree murder charges and reckless homicide charges in drug-related fatalities.
On Wednesday, Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Sean McDermott said authorities there have been looking at fatal drug overdoses during the past several years and considering what charges might be brought. However, there was not uniformity in how the emergency calls were dispatched or investigated, McDermott said.
That led to the formation of a task force that sought uniformity, particularly in the examination of cell phones, McDermott said.
“Time is of the essence,” he said.
Most often, a victim has contacted a source via a cell phone, McDermott said.
The task force became operational in April.
McDermott said Knox County has brought both second-degree murder and reckless homicide charges against people who have unlawfully distributed drugs that have caused fatal drug overdoses. The first one was in 2015, and six people total were charged between 2015 and March 2017, the month before the task force became operational. Nine more have been charged between April and now, McDermott said.
The second-degree murder charges require a Schedule I or Schedule II drug. Fentanyl analogues don’t meet that criteria, so that’s when authorities might bring a reckless homicide charge, McDermott said. It could be a combination of drugs or a prescription drug like Xanax.
“In many cases, there are multiple substances in the victim’s system,” McDermott said.
Under Tennessee law, the definition of second-degree murder includes the “killing of another that results from the unlawful distribution of any Schedule I or Schedule II drug, when the drug is the proximate cause of the death of the user.” Examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), and peyote. Examples of Schedule II drugs include Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In Anderson County, authorities are looking at other cases and will continue to do so, Clark said.
“We want to do something about the recent influx of heroin into the United States and Tennessee and Anderson County,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
Besides heroin and prescription painkillers, there has also been concern across the country about fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. Among other things, it can be mixed with heroin, an opioid drug made from morphine, in a potentially deadly combination. In one Oak Ridge case, police allege that a woman indicted on aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges after a drug overdose in February had given a man acrylfentanyl, a fentanyl analogue that is more powerful and dangerous than heroin, although she had described it to police as heroin for sale, according to a written statement described in court affidavits.
Second-degree murder charges have been brought in fatal drug overdoses in other states as well. The Associated Press reported in April that a Rhode Island drug dealer was convicted of second-degree murder for the first time since the opioid crisis began for selling drugs that killed someone. The 29-year-old woman who died thought she was buying heroin, but she actually received fentanyl and died immediately after injecting it, the AP said. The judge in that case said the 20-year prison sentence given to the 25-year-old convicted man, plus an additional 20 years suspended with probation, sends a message to drug dealers.
“Her death should not be in vain,” Superior Court Judge Kristen Rodgers told a courtroom in Providence, Rhode Island, according to the AP. “Their actions, putting dangerous drugs on the street, will result in a murder charge.”
As of April 2016, 20 states had “drug-induced homicide” laws ranging from capital one offenses that impose the death penalty or a life sentence to lesser prison sentence terms under various felony-murder, depraved heart, or involuntary or voluntary manslaughter statutes—and three other states were considering drug-related homicide legislation, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
Not everyone agrees with the use of homicide charges in fatal drug overdoses. In its report published in April 2016, the Drug Policy Alliance said policymakers are understandably alarmed at the overdose crisis. But the report said drug-induced homicide laws could discourage people from seeking help for an overdose for fear of prosecution, will punish users despite the intent to punish sellers, and with supply following demand, won’t deter future selling or reduce future overdoses.
Oak Ridge Today asked Clark how he would respond, specifically to the concerns about people possibly being deterred from calling 911 after an overdose for fear of prosecution. Clark, who has cited the second-degree murder statute related to providing drugs that cause death, said he enforces states laws.
McDermott said there is a statutory immunity in Tennessee for someone who calls 911 to alert authorities of an overdose, although there are exceptions to that immunity. A drug dealer would not be exempt, for example, McDermott said.
Bringing charges against those who unlawfully distribute drugs that cause death is just one part of an all-encompassing approach that authorities are trying to use combat the opioid epidemic, McDermott said.
Besides bringing charges, Knox County is also investigating drug trafficking using wiretaps and conspiracy statutes, and trying to get more treatment for addicts, including through a pilot program that uses injections to prevent users from getting high along with treatment at Helen Ross McNabb, McDermott said.
“We’re trying to do everything we can,” McDermott said.
He said Knox County is trying to attack from both the supply side (dealer) and demand side (treating the addict).
“We’re looking at every angle that we can because of the far-reaching impact,” McDermott said. “This is just one part of what we’re tying to do to combat this opioid epidemic.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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