Coroner Charles E. Kiessling said Wednesday it is time to stop dancing around the issue and “call it what it is.”
He now lists homicide as the manner of death on death certificates in cases where heroin has been determined to be the cause.
“If you are selling heroin to someone and they die, isn’t that homicide?” he asked.
Calling it accidental down plays the severity of the situation, he said, noting there were approximately two dozen drug overdose deaths in the county last year.
Coroners have the option to list as the manner of death as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined, Kiessling said.
He had been listing overdose deaths as accidental but said that category fits those who die in traffic accidents or a fall off a ladder.
“If you are dealing drugs you are a murderer,” he said. “You may not know who you are killing.”
Before making the change to homicide Kiessling said he consulted with Harrisburg lawyer Susan Shanaman, who is solicitor for the Pennsylvania State Coroner’s Association of which he is president.
The National Association of Medical Examiners says coroners have the discretion to call overdose deaths homicide or accidental, she said. They meet the definition of death at the hands of another, she said.
Because dealers cut heroin with a variety of substances, buyers don’t know what they are getting, she said.
In her opinion, Kiessling recognizes there is an epidemic and “and we should call drug dealers what they are – dealing death.”
Kiessling admits he is fired up. As a registered nurse, “I have experience on the ground,” he said.
It became personal when recently he had to pronounce the son of a friend dead from an overdose, he said.
The victim’s mother had asked him to talk to her son about getting off drugs but he overdosed before he had the opportunity, Kiessling said.
“This hit me very personally,” he said. “I don’t care if I offend people. Drug dealers are murderers and belong in state prison.”
Despite that opinion, he said he also realizes “we can’t arrest ourselves out of this mess.”
He plans to put out something statewide letting others know he is listing heroin overdose deaths homicides.
“Some will agree (with his stance) and some will not,” Kiessling predicts. “I just think it is the right thing to do.”
The exception to listing homicide as the manner of death would be in cases where prescription drugs also were a factor, he explained.
Doctors have a license to prescribe drugs, he said. “Drug dealers aren’t licensed to do anything,” he said.
Shanaman said she is discussing with other coroners the position Kiessling has taken.
Northumberland County Coroner James F. Kelly has spoken with Kiessling but he wants to get additional opinions before he changes from accidental to homicide, he said.
His office has investigated six confirmed or suspected drug overdose deaths this year, he said.
A coroner’s opinion on the manner of death is not binding on police.
It is part of the information law enforcement considers in determining if a crime was committed and can someone be charged with it, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Law enforcement will give Kiessling’s homicide opinions the appropriate weight in an investigation, he said.
“Coroner Kiessling and I agree that heroin is a killer,” Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt said. “We both have been witness to it.
“However, it is important for the public to understand that a coroner’s ruling that a heroin overdose death is homicide is not a legal finding of homicide.”
Drug delivery resulting in death cases remain difficult to prove and prosecute, Linhardt said.
“In fact, we have been able to prosecute only a handful of such cases with varying degrees of success,” he said.