It's an opioid overdose death. But is it a murder?

Luke Ronnei
Luke Ronnei, 20, died in January from a heroin overdose.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Ronnei

When Colleen Ronnei found that her son Luke was using heroin, she fought for him. Desperately.

She sent Luke to Hazelden for treatment. She screened his cell phone and blocked suspicious numbers.

She even took to following him when he left the house, which led her to a woman she suspected of selling him heroin from the parking lot of the Southdale Center shopping mall. Colleen wrote down the car's license plate number and description and brought it to police.

When that didn't get a response, she confronted the woman, threatening to ram her car if she kept selling to her son.

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"She just looked at me. And I drove off because Luke was afraid," Ronnei said. "'You put me in danger, Mom, and you put yourself in danger when you do that.' I said, 'Luke, you are in danger.'"

Luke fought for his sobriety, but succumbed to a heroin overdose on Jan. 7. The last time his mother saw him, he was snoring in bed before a doctor's appointment. He was 20 years old.

The heroin that killed Luke Ronnei came from the woman Colleen had reported to police and confronted. Holding the woman accountable for her role in his death become her mission.

"There are so many aspects of this problem that need to be addressed that you could just sit and spin in your chair all day long and say, 'Where do I start?'" Colleen Ronnei said. "But for me, it was really hard to start on anything until she was off the streets."

A tool for prosecutors in the midst of an epidemic

As the number of deaths from opioid overdoses has steadily increased over the last decade and a half, some prosecutors are turning more often to a state law that allows a person to be prosecuted for third-degree murder if they provided drugs that resulted in someone's death.

Some defense attorneys argue that the third-degree murder law — and its accompanying instructions for juries considering the charge — are too broadly written and can ensnare and punish others dealing with addiction.

Beverly Nicole Burrell, the woman accused of selling heroin to Luke Ronnei, was recently charged by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in Luke's overdose death — and the deaths of two other young men, Max Tillitt and Nicholas Petrick. In at least two of those cases, investigators found that the heroin involved had been mixed with something else: another powerful opioid called fentanyl, or with methamphetamines.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the third-degree murder law is designed precisely to go after those selling drugs that lead to death.

"This dealer didn't shoot the heroin into the victim, but they dealt them heroin knowing that it was mixed with other things and it was bad stuff. And it killed them," Freeman said. "We need to take these people out of circulation, and that's why we need to be aggressive in charging these cases."

Freeman said he plans to seek a 200-month sentence for Burrell. Her lawyer recently requested to resign from the case and didn't respond to a request for comment.

Freeman's office now files a handful of third-degree murder charges each year against people who have sold drugs that led to death, he said.

"Somebody is dead," Freeman said. "When you take a person's life, you deserve to do real time in prison. And I don't apologize for that for one minute."

Other prosecutors have also started to use the charge more often in recent years, according to court records.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has been one of the state's most aggressive prosecutors on drug cases, largely in response to the opioid overdose epidemic that now kills about 30,000 Americans each year.

"You want to think it's never a problem out in bucolic Washington County, and I've got news for you, it's everywhere," Orput said. "It's ubiquitous and kids are dying left and right to the point where when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I almost go into apoplexy because I'm afraid it's going to be, 'Yeah, we found another dead kid in a motel with a needle in his arm.'"

Records from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission show that 23 offenders were sentenced for third-degree murder between 2001 and 2014 in Minnesota. About a third of those offenders received just probation for the conviction.

Most of the cases he charges focus on drug dealers, instead of drug users, Orput said.

"What we're talking about is those who are out selling drugs that result in killing our kids, and they do it for a profit," Orput said. "Some might also be addicted, feeding their own monkey while they sell the stuff, but nonetheless, if you sell it, you're at great risk of what happens to that victim who is ingesting the drugs you sold."

Concerns about punishing addiction

While the law may be intended to hold drug dealers accountable, it's also often used against people who are themselves drug users and share or sell a small amount of drugs, said Assistant State Public Defender J.D. Schmid.

"One of the hard parts of these cases is that it is tragic that someone has died and family members, friends, they want someone to be held accountable for it," Schmid said. "But the sentence that gets imposed doesn't serve any purpose, really, other than punishment."

Jennifer Marie Johnson and Denis Parmuat
Jennifer Marie Johnson and her husband, Denis Parmuat, who died of mixed drug toxicity of methadone and ethanol in 2013
Photo courtesy of Julie Tyson

Jennifer Marie Johnson is being held at Mille Lacs County Jail. She's a little more than halfway through a 72-month sentence for third-degree murder stemming from the death of her husband, Denis Parmuat, in March 2013.

Johnson said she pleaded guilty on the advice of her attorney. One night in March, Parmuat had asked her for some of her prescription methadone, to help him fall asleep. He had already had 12 beers that night. She gave him the prescription — and then he took more, she said, without asking.

"After a few minutes, he started breathing funny. I tried waking him up and tried waking him up and he wouldn't wake up," Johnson said. "So I yelled out to my daughter to call the ambulance, and I continued to try waking him up as we were waiting."

Officers arrived at Johnson's home in Newport, Minn., at 1:41 a.m., and Parmuat was in "full cardiac arrest" when he arrived at Regions Hospital's emergency room nearly an hour later, according to the criminal complaint. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner reported that Parmuat died of mixed drug toxicity from methadone and ethanol.

Johnson was arrested soon after, and charged with third-degree murder in his death the following year. She said she was shocked that prosecutors wanted to send her to jail for her husband's death.

"I think my biggest punishment was losing the person I loved more than anything. He was such a good person, he would do anything for anyone. And I will never have him again," Johnson said. "To make an example out of me, when the case is that I lost my husband, I think is really a disgusting thing to do personally."

The case was prosecuted by Orput's office, who said "Ms. Johnson's case is just not as simple as portraying it as a wife getting high with her husband, the husband dies and prosecutors charge the wife. That's what it may appear as, but if that were so, she would be not guilty under our case law. In my view, those who distribute illicit drugs that kill users owe me for one third-degree murder."

Johnson is going through the appeals process with a new public defender. But she and her immediate family feel like she's being made a scapegoat.

"The thing that goes through my head and has gone through my head every day since March 30th of 2013 when this happened, I feel like I'm in a nightmare, is this really happening to me?" Johnson said. "I just can't believe this is my life. Still, after two and a half years, I can't believe it."

Part of the problem with the charge, in public defender Schmid's mind, is the language of the statute, which was written in 1987. It states that someone is guilty of third-degree murder if a controlled substance they provide "proximately causes" a death, whether it's on purpose or not. That language makes it difficult to defend against, Schmid said.

St. Paul attorney Melvin Welch has represented one client facing the charge. He thinks the jury instructions for the third-degree murder charge contradict Minnesota case law.

Welch said the jury instructions currently define the proximate cause of death in the statute as "something that had a substantial part in bringing about the death, either directly or immediately or through happenings that follow one after another."

Schmid has represented two clients charged with third-degree murder for drugs, both of whom he says were drug users themselves and would more appropriately be charged with a third-degree drug sale.

"The prison sentences themselves aren't going to prevent these tragedies when addiction is what's driving the problem," Schmid said. "Using what limited resources that we have to address addiction is going to be far more beneficial in preventing these sort of deaths than incarceration."