Opioid Overdose Deaths Spark Murder Charges in Tennessee
Sue Goodrum woke up to flashing lights outside her bedroom window after falling asleep early on a winter night in 2016.
Her 33-year-old son, Daniel, recently paralyzed in a car accident, stayed with her at her house in the Frayser neighborhood of Memphis with his girlfriend and their 6-week old son.
A hallway and two closed doors separated Goodrum's room from her son's living space, and a fan was blowing to drown out noise. When she saw the ambulance at about 9:30 p.m., she didn't think that it was coming to her house. But about 15 minutes later, a gurney wheeled down her driveway.
"I knew then this is Daniel," she said. "And I jumped up."
Goodrum's son, Corey Goodrum, known by his nickname Daniel, overdosed that night, and two people are charged with killing him by unlawfully distributing the heroin.
Amid the growing opioid crisis, the case is one of a number of recent prosecutions in Tennessee in which murder charges have been brought against the people suspected of supplying the deadly dose of drugs.
Other states, including Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming also have drug-induced homicide laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
Putting the pieces together
Gathering the evidence to bring charges after a person dies of an opioid overdose can be a challenge, according to Metro Nashville Police Lt. Carlos Lara, who leads narcotics investigations within the department's specialized investigations division.
The investigations require backtracking, he said, because often overdose victims are found alone.
“Now we’re trying to … start putting the pieces together,” Lara said. "Starting to dig deep to figure out who was the last person with this person, do we have any information on who this person contacted to get the drugs.”
That effort can run into hurdles erected by silence by others with drug addictions who fear speaking out and getting into trouble, he said.
“They need to know if you sell something and somebody dies, you can be held accountable,” he said. “And you can be held accountable for their death ... We’re hoping it’ll make them think twice about dealing these drugs.”
He sees the murder charge, as opposed to a drug distribution charge, as another way to combat the opioid crisis.
Officials reported at least 1,451 people died from drug overdoses in Tennessee in 2015, but the true number is unknown and likely higher by the hundreds, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee investigation.
National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 33,000 people died in 2015 from opioids.
"That big heart"
Sue Goodrum's son was born in Memphis on August 19, 1982. Growing up, he liked to fish with his brothers — one older and one younger — at Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee about 100 miles north of Memphis.
A big guy at 6 feet 3 inches, he loved sports, playing football and basketball.
"You knew when he came into a room," Goodrum said. "(He) loved to talk and he was going to make sure you heard him because he was loud. Always smiling. Always. He could be dead tired from working or whatever, and he would be laughing about it and smiling about it. And very sensitive. Sad movies made him cry. This great big teddy bear, but a sad movie is going to make him cry."
His Christian faith was important to him, and he was not shy about talking to his friends about Jesus, Goodrum said. He especially liked to be kind to the elderly, and helped a neighbor who lived alone by mowing her lawn. After any argument with his mother, he still called every night to say, "I love you."
"He just had that big heart," Goodrum said.
In November 2015, he was injured as a passenger in a car accident at Hollywood and Frayser Boulevard in Memphis, breaking his neck in four places. He spent two months at Regional Medical Center and five weeks at a rehab facility, unable to move below his chest. Eventually, he could move one arm and he started to be able to feed himself.
In February 2016, just days after his release, he had a doctor's appointment. But his name got overlooked and the ambulance that was supposed to pick him up didn't come, Goodrum said. He had run out of all the medications he had been sent home with.
"He decided to use that day," she said. "He told his girlfriend he was in pain and he wanted to use."
When emergency lights awoke her, Goodrum asked her son's girlfriend what was going on.
She said Daniel overdosed on heroin.
"The only thing I could think of was why didn't you wake me?" Goodrum said. "If he was in pain, we could have taken him to the hospital, we could have done anything but that. And you have a baby here. Why didn't you wake me?
"Her response was she was scared, she was scared I would get mad."
The girlfriend, 28-year-old Haley High, and the suspected dealer, 30-year-old Jerrico Long, are both charged with second-degree murder in his death.
In a previous case in 2013, 18-year-old University of Memphis student Sharon Muir died in a heroin overdose. The state alleged that Eric Herbers bought the heroin to celebrate their one-month anniversary. He pleaded in an agreement for a sentence of eight years.
In another Tennessee case, Marvin "Pookie" Foster, was convicted in June of federal charges for selling heroin to a man who overdosed.
Cody E. Tettleton was found unresponsive in his pickup truck July 2, 2014 in Halls, about 45 miles northwest of Jackson. A farmer saw the truck and called authorities. Foster faces a recommended sentence of 25 years with no parole, said U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant.
At least seven other cases are pending in Shelby County involving people charged in overdose deaths.
Bertrand Ross Tuggle, Jr., 53, who was born in Virginia and graduated from Auburn University, died last year in Memphis from a lethal mix of fentanyl and heroin after a years long struggle with alcohol and prescription pills. He was found in his car in his driveway.
Two men, Aaron Lipford, 53, and Justin Slepicka, 23, were charged with second-degree murder in his death.
Tuggle's mother, Barbara Tuggle, had heart problems and she died not long after her son.
"What happened to him took a toll on her," said her son, Allen Tuggle.
To him, the second-degree murder charge is more than fair.
"In my opinion I think it's very fair and honestly I don't think it's steep enough if you ask me," he said. "In my opinion, it should be life."
In Sumner County northeast of Nashville, District Attorney Ray Whitley estimated several such cases had been prosecuted in recent years.
The law has been on the books more than a decade, he said, but the cases can be tricky because law enforcement must prove how someone got the deadly drugs.
A conviction of second-degree murder carries a possible prison term of 15 to 25 years, with no chance at early release, he said. He believes that consequence is appropriate for the crime.
“Anything we can do to try and deter people from dispensing and using opioids we need to do,” he said. “This is a tool we have and we ought to use it when we have the opportunity.”
He believes prosecuting such crimes serves as a deterrent against drug distribution.
Is it effective?
The Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the war on drugs and supports "a new approach grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights," said most laws charging murder for overdose deaths were passed in the 1980s and were reinvigorated in the wake of increasing overdose deaths in the last few years.
"There is absolutely no evidence in support of the effectiveness of these laws for either reducing sales or use or reducing overdoses," said Drug Policy Alliance senior staff attorney Lindsay LaSalle.
Instead, the policy group argues that such laws actually discourage people from making 911 calls for overdose victims for fear of prosecution.
“On the other hand, proven strategies are available to reduce the harms associated with drug misuse, treat dependence and addiction, improve immediate overdose responses, enhance public safety, and prevent fatalities,” the group said in a paper.
“These strategies include expanding access to the lifesaving medicine naloxone and its associated training; improving fact-based drug education for young people that includes an overdose prevention and response component; enacting legal protections that encourage people to call for help for overdose victims; training people how to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose; increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, including methadone and buprenorphine; and implementing safe injection facilities.”
Daniel Goodrum had previously struggled with addiction. At some point — his mom thinks in high school— he started drinking, and when he got older, he developed a problem with pain pills. When they got too expensive, he turned to heroin, Sue Goodrum said.
The night of the overdose, a detective came, separating Goodrum and her husband from the girlfriend. The detective told Goodrum he was sorry. Her son didn't survive.
"I can just still hear those words," Goodrum said. "You know they ring in your head. 'I'm sorry your son didn't make it.'"
She went outside her house and started hitting the walls of the ramp that had been built for her son after his accident.
She was in shock.
But "you have to hold yourself together," she said. "So that's what you do."