MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — More than 100 Minnesotans died from heroin overdoses last year.
It is a growing crisis that the justice system thinks cannot be stopped by targeting drug abusers alone.
It has become a priority for Hennepin County’s top prosecutor, Mike Freeman. He has charged a total of 12 people in the last five years with selling someone a deadly batch of heroin.
“These dealers know that the stuff they’re selling folks can kill them,” Freeman said. “With the opiate epidemic and with the bad heroin, we started thinking about what could we do to be creative to go after these people who are selling this junk and killing people.”
His office started to focus on a once rarely-used state law, allowing a person to be prosecuted for third-degree murder if they provide a controlled substance that resulted in someone’s death.
WCCO found Hennepin County used the charge twice in 2012 and 2013. But it came into play last year multiple times alone in an unprecedented case in Minnesota against an accused heroin dealer named Beverly Burrell.
“She’s selling more stuff, more bad stuff, than anybody that I’m aware of,” Freeman said.
He says she was selling $150,000 worth of heroin every month. She is in jail now charged with killing four men in Hennepin County and a former Marine in Sherburne County.
Investigators say her heroin was laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid that can be fatal even in small doses.
A third-degree murder charge carries a 25-year prison sentence, which a judge could run consecutively.
“If we convict her of these charges, and we believe we will, she’s not going to see the light of day again,” Freeman said.
Prosecutors say the opioid addiction is behind the rise in the third-degree murder sentence statewide.
In 2011, two people were sentenced for third-degree murder. Last year, seven people were sentenced in Minnesota.
“This is somebody’s son or daughter. This is somebody’s loved one,” Freeman said.
He has worked to reduce penalties for drug users, pushing for more significant penalties for dealers, recognizing addiction as a disease and sending a message to users to find help as soon as possible.
“If they don’t stop using this junk it’s going to kill them,” Freeman said.
Burrell is scheduled to go on trial in Hennepin County in March.