Allegheny County Medical Examiner Weighs In On Overdose Homicide Rulings

Mar 29, 2016

The Allegheny County medical examiner said it's not his call in response to the Lycoming County coroner's decision to rule overdose deaths as homicides.
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Drug-related deaths are usually ruled accidental.

But one Pennsylvania coroner said he's ruling some overdoses homicides. Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling said he’s not the first in Pennsylvania to interpret toxicology reports in that way and that it's legal. 

Drug-related deaths are on the rise in Pennsylvania - the state saw more than 2,700 in 2014. That's an increase of 13 percent from the year before. Among all overdoses, heroin is the most frequently identified drug. 

Kiessling said calling these deaths “accidents” downplays the severity of the situation. He said if an illicit substance is clearly the cause of death, he’ll rule it a homicide and said that in some cases, if an individual didn’t have access to the drug, they’d still be alive.

“If the drug dealer is selling heroin illegally, to a drug user, and this person then dies, I believe that is the death of an individual at the hands of another,” Kiessling said. 

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams said that's not his call to make.

Williams said he does not and will not rule drug-related deaths as homicides. He said he examines toxicology reports, rather than motive resulting in death.

Williams said drugs in Pennsylvania have been a problem for a long time. 

“Allegheny County, like every other jurisdiction, is facing an extraordinary explosion of overdose deaths," Williams said. "But it’s by and large another manifestation of what we’ve seen for decades and decades, and they have never been called homicides."

Drug overdoses in Allegheny County increased from 326 to 372 between 2014 and 2015. 

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office said it investigates every heroin overdose as a potential homicide.

A coroner's ruling is not legally binding in a criminal investigation.