Opinion: Special prosecutor will help district attorney’s office 'swing for the fences' on opioids

Contributed Photo / In 2022, billboards posted in Dalton, Ga., warned about the dangers of drugs.

The Hamilton County district attorney's office has a new resource in a battle against the opioid scourge — a chief opioid prosecutor.

And since opioid deaths in the county in 2022 (200+) surpassed the combined number of fatal car crashes (47) and homicide deaths (36) — times two and then some — it's not a moment too soon.

When District Attorney Coty Wamp ran for her seat last year, she pledged to punish people convicted for manufacturing, selling or delivering heroin and fentanyl and said she would have "a zero tolerance policy" for such dealers.

"They belong in prison," she said.

With year over year opioid deaths increasing, Wamp said after taking office she pondered what the best move she could make would be to prosecute those whose actions helped facilitate such deaths. At the same time, she said her brother, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, was hearing about the increasing number of opioid deaths and overdoses from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services.

"I want to be as solutions-oriented as possible," she told this page last week, "and the county agreed."

The new position was put in the county's fiscal 2024 budget, and Jamie Pulido, who had been the office's supervising DUI prosecutor, began his new position July 1.

"We're at the very bottom of the entire state in terms of putting away the dealers of deadly drugs," Mayor Wamp told the Hamilton County Commission when the budget was presented in June. "It's quite frankly a failure of this community over the last decade, and these cases are incredibly complex."

How complex?

"It's very, very difficult [to get a conviction]," the district attorney said. "You have to prove absolute causation. Investigations are super, super time-consuming. And you have to decide pretty quickly as to which cases to prioritize when it comes to overdose deaths. There's not enough law enforcement to investigate them all."

And if they are to be investigated, Wamp said, full autopsies are required, so timing is of the essence. Without one, she said, a conviction is nearly impossible.

She said Pulido will pursue Class A and B felony-level drug offenses, which usually involve a major dealer or someone in possession of a significant amount of drugs they've been delivering, distributing or selling. He'll also be responsible for trying cases involving a Tennessee statute that allows someone who sells or delivers illegal drugs to be charged with second-degree murder if the drugs result in a death.

Wamp's office got its first conviction on the latter statute earlier this year when Morgan Nicole Copeland was found guilty of second-degree murder in the 2018 death of Nicholas Jackson.

She said there are 10 or 20 other such cases pending, and "we're investigating way more."

One of the most recent is the case of Austin Chase King, 22, who was indicted last month by the Hamilton County Grand Jury on counts of second-degree murder and sale and distribution of fentanyl in the April 13, 2021, death of Shandle Riley, the subject of the controversial 2019 baptism after a traffic stop by former Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Daniel Wilkey.

Wamp had previously named chief prosecutors for gang and violent crimes, homicides, and child sex crimes and acknowledged "we've seen a lot of success in specialized prosecutions."

She said a prosecutor concentrating on a single area is "going to get better results" as opposed prosecuting cases "willy-nilly." Plus, she said, such prosecutors can be held accountable for results in their designated area.

"We'll see next year how drug prosecutions have increased," Wamp said.

Accountability is important. We hope she'll report to the public annually on how each of the chief prosecutors is measuring up.

Wamp said the inclusion in the budget of the chief opioid prosecutor may be her office's "biggest partnership with the county in the next couple of years." She said "the conversation needs to change from violent crime to opioids. It's a problem that is not going away, and it's been on the rise for the last decade. It's our primary public health emergency and primary criminal justice concern."

Pulido, she said, "will become the expert" on opioids, and law enforcement members will be able to call him, know him as the point person on investigations, and understand how far to take an investigation to determine its validity.

He's already met with narcotics investigators, Wamp said.

Her office's new resource, she said, will help her team focus and "do our best" on a scourge that's at best difficult to control and prosecute. Having scored the second-degree murder conviction in the spring, though, will make the next one a little bit easier and the next one after that even easier, she said.

"It's difficult to tell families we cannot move forward on some of these," Wamp said. "We want to tell as many families as we can we will swing for the fence on this."