In what might be the first case of its kind, DeKalb County prosecutors are preparing a felony murder charge against a man accused of selling heroin that caused a fatal overdose.
At a hearing Wednesday in Magistrate Court, a judge ruled there is enough evidence to proceed with the case against Antoin Thornton of Atlanta, despite her “discomfort and reservations” about the decision. Thornton, 28, is charged in the death of 22-year-old Alexander Whitehead, who was found at a Dunwoody apartment complex March 18.
“Certainly, if this were a trial, I would struggle to convict based on what I have heard today,” the judge, Christine Koehler, said at the preliminary hearing.
The prosecuting attorney said a murder charge has never been brought in DeKalb against an alleged dealer who was not a drug user themselves and was not present during the overdose.
While it’s not the first case in which a dealer has been charged in connection with a fatal overdose, a charge of felony murder is unusual. The case could set a state-wide precedent for the types of charges prosecutors can use to stop street-level drug dealers who are contributing to a surge in opioid-related deaths.
Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Lance Cross said he is confident in the charge, since Thornton “is doing something so inherently dangerous.”
“He’s giving people, literally, poison that he knows … will kill them,” Cross said.
Thornton’s defense attorney Andrew Fleischman argued during the hearing that an alleged dealer should not be charged with felony murder simply because their drugs lead to someone’s death.
“It’s not enough for felony murder that you do a felony and somebody dies,” Fleischman said.
Thornton has not entered a formal plea against the charges.
He allegedly sold heroin to Whitehead at a Dunwoody apartment complex, Detective Caleb Gilbert testified Wednesday. He said the drugs were laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
After Whitehead’s death, investigators tracked the source of the drugs using text messages from the victim’s phone and people who knew him, Gilbert said.
Thornton, who went by the nickname “Hollywood,” was identified as the alleged dealer, and police set up an undercover heroin sale with him, according to the detective. After police executed a search warrant at his home, he was taken into custody. Thornton later told investigators that he has never used heroin because “he knows you can die” from taking it, Gilbert testified.
“He felt bad about (selling) it, but it was just a risk he was willing to take,” the detective said.
Since heroin was found during the search of his home, Thornton was charged with drug trafficking and violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act in addition to felony murder.
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Cross said his office does not generally seek charges against people who are struggling with addiction. What makes this case unique, he said, is that Thornton admitted to not using heroin, only selling it.
“We’re trying to help addicts and folks that have a health issue with heroin,” Cross said in an interview after the hearing. “But in the same vein, there are folks out there that are profiting off of their misery, and we have to also use the law appropriately to target those individuals.”
The prosecutor cited two cases he worked on in Fulton County where the defendants pleaded guilty for their roles in overdose deaths. In both cases, the suspects were initially charged with murder, but the charges were reduced when they pleaded guilty, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives. Those cases are different from Thornton’s, however, since the defendants were with the victims when they overdosed and knew them more closely.
Cross previously admitted Thornton’s prosecution could be tough moving forward, since “you have to prove that the heroin that was sold by a specific dealer caused the death of the victim,” he said at a press conference after Thornton’s arrest.
The Georgia Supreme Court released an opinion this week on another fatal overdose case. The incident stems from Fulton County, where a grand jury indicted Graham Williams on a felony murder charge for his role in the death of Gregg Ivey, 28, on Oct. 21, 2015. Prosecutors said Williams injected heroin into Ivey. A judge dismissed the murder indictment, but the Georgia Supreme Court reinstated it in its ruling Monday.
MORE COVERAGE: Fatal heroin overdose tests limits of amnesty law
Whitehead, the victim in Dunwoody, had previously gone to rehab, and “was struggling to get clean, and unfortunately he ended up using heroin and it killed him,” Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan said at a press conference last month. After getting calls that he was non-responsive at the Jefferson at Perimeter apartments, officers performed CPR and used the overdose reversal drug Narcan on him, but they were unsuccessful.
The detective said that the victim was a “novice” heroin user and had only used the drug once before. Investigators found Google searches where Whitehead had searched how to take heroin without overdosing.
According to an obituary posted by his family online, Whitehead was originally from Cumming.
“Alex was a bright, sensitive, loving, and creative young man who struggled with depression and addiction,” the notice stated.
State and federal officials in recent years have focused on fighting the opioid epidemic through increased enforcement and prosecutions. In 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia launched a new operation tasked with cracking down on opioid overdoses by bringing charges against dealers, traffickers and doctors who overprescibe the drugs.
More than 8,000 Georgians have died from drug overdoses in the past eight years, according to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.
In Dunwoody alone, officers have responded to more than 50 opioid-related overdoses in the past two years, spokesman Sgt. Robert Parsons said. Sixteen of those resulted in deaths.
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