A Fulton County judge has dismissed a murder indictment against Graham Williams, who allegedly injected heroin into the vein of a Milton man who then overdosed and died.
The case was seen as a key test of how tough metro-Atlanta prosecutors can be as they seek to combat a surge of deaths linked to opioids, methamphetamine and other drugs.
Fulton prosecutors had obtained a felony murder indictment against Williams for the Oct. 21, 2015, overdose of Gregg Ivey. The underlying felony behind the murder charge accused Williams of the distribution of heroin.
In his ruling, Superior Court Judge John Goger noted that Williams, 35, injected the fatal dose at Ivey’s request and Ivey had purchased the heroin for himself. For this reason, this could not be distribution of heroin under Georgia law, and without the underlying felony, there is no felony murder, the judge said.
“We’re gratified that the case is essentially over at this point, unless the state appeals,” Manny Arora, Williams’ defense attorney, said. “This should have happened a couple of years ago. But at least now everyone can recover and move on with their lives.”
Williams, who lives with his parents in Bristol, Tenn., was gratified by the ruling, Arora said.
The Fulton District Attorney’s Office didn’t reply to a request for comment. It is unclear if they will appeal.
Ivey’s sister, Julie Ivey, said she hopes this isn’t the end of the case.
“We are all very disappointed with Judge Goger’s ruling and our family will do everything we can to fully support the state in the appeal process,” she said. “We are not going to back down and this is far from over.”
She added, “I refuse to let my brother’s death be in vain.”
The judge stopped short of addressing another critical legal issue raised in the case: whether Williams should have been shielded from prosecution by Georgia’s medical amnesty law. Adopted in 2014, the statute encourages drug users to stay with an overdose victim and give aid instead of fleeing the scene in fear of prosecution. It says that a person who calls 911 and remains at the scene “in good faith” and provides care cannot face criminal prosecution.
The reach of the immunity law hasn’t been clearly established yet by the courts in Georgia.
As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month, Williams’ lawyer and Fulton prosecutors disagreed whether the law applied in this case. Prosecutors said Williams hindered two other people at the Milton home from calling 911 for at least 15 minutes before finally relenting if they agreed to say Ivey was alone when he took the drug. During a recent court hearing, Williams took the stand, denied threatening anyone to keep them from calling 911 and insisted he helped perform CPR on Ivey.
Ivey’s family had pressed police to investigate the case after Williams and two others at the scene initially said Gregg Ivey was alone when he injected the heroin into himself. His siblings said the 28-year-old hated needles, loved being around his friends and wasn’t the type to sit by himself and shoot up.
They were right. After being questioned, two witnesses at the scene told police that Williams had added more heroin to the syringe after it was initially prepared and then injected Ivey with the drug.
This led prosecutors to obtain the felony murder indictment early this year.
But Goger called the use of drug distribution to make a felony murder charge “misguided.”
“There is no suggestion that the defendant purchased, much less owned the drugs involved,” Goger wrote. “Nor is there any evidence that the defendant assisted in acquiring the drugs for Mr. Ivey.”
The “natural” or “most obvious” meaning of “distribute” under Georgia’s drug distribution statute constitutes the sale of controlled substances, Goger wrote. This does not include “the injection of heroin by one person into the body and at the request of another.”
Goger relied on a number of rulings by other courts all over the country in reaching his conclusion. But he acknowledged he could not find controlling precedent in Georgia.
“Whether the mere injection of heroin into the body of another at the request of that person amounts to ‘distribution’ … has never been squarely addressed by Georgia appellate courts,” Goger wrote.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.