BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The illicit drug fentanyl has now killed 153 Kern County residents this year, a number that blows away last year’s record of 125 fentanyl deaths, and with six weeks left in the year.
How do we head this off? On many fronts. Education is one: Billboards featuring 18-year-old Destiny Ayala, who died in June, just went up this week.
Meanwhile, the Kern County District Attorney has for several weeks been taking the same approach as several other DAs around the state, including, most recently, Orange County.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer has stepped into a void the state legislature has not been willing to fill. Her office is trying to make it easier for prosecutors to pursue murder charges against drug dealers who — however inadvertently — kill.
“We have seen such a huge rise in the number of fentanyl overdoses here in Kern County (and) not just in Kern County but nationwide,” Zimmer told KGET on Wednesday. “We would like to be able to have the opportunity to prosecute drug dealers for murder for killing some of these young people that they distribute this horrific drug to.”
The warning is based on the so-called Watson advisal that judges are required to read at the sentencing of people convicted of DUI. Going forward, if someone is killed in a crash caused by the defendant’s impairment, they can be charged with second-degree murder. That’s currently already the case with drug overdose deaths, but prosecutors only rarely seek it. But now juries will be informed if a defendant in a drug sales, trafficking or furnishing case were previously informed about the possibility of a murder charge.
“There’s second-degree murder (and) something called implied malice murder,” Zimmer said. “We have to show that the accused knew what they were doing was dangerous, they chose to do it anyway, you know, they knew what they were doing and knew that they could be prosecuted for murder.”
Zimmer asked Kern County Superior Court judges if they would read the advisal in court, but they declined, according to Zimmer, citing the absence of guidance from the state. So Zimmer’s office is handling it.
The final paragraph of the statement prosecutors read to convicted drug dealers at sentencing reads: “Anyone who engages in the inherently dangerous conduct of selling, furnishing or possessing for sale illegal drugs and whose actions result in the death of another can be charged with murder or manslaughter.”
Will it make a difference? With fentanyl alone killing three people a week in Kern County this year, Zimmer will take every tool from her toolbox she can get. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a big time street dealer or a best friend who just happened to make a very bad mistake.
The state legislature could have required a similar advisal to be read in courtrooms statewide. State Sen. Melissa Melendez of Murrieta, whose district is also dealing with a devastating spike in fentanyl deaths, authored a bill this year requiring judges across the state to read the admonishment, but it failed to get out of committee.
So DAs across the state have been taking the matter into their own hands.