Editorial: With overdose arrests, history has been made

In a very real sense, history was made again March 11 when two men were arraigned on manslaughter charges for allegedly supplying heroin cut with fentanyl to a Riverhead man who died after using this deadly mix.

In the nightmare that is America’s opioid crisis, responsible for hundreds of recent deaths in Suffolk County and eastern Long Island, the indictments unsealed Monday were historic. The game-changing case marks only the third time the county has charged drug dealers with manslaughter in connection with a fatal overdose.

John Brophy of Riverhead and LaShawn Lawrence of Greenport were both indicted for second-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of Lawrence Yaccarino. Last September, after Riverhead Town police responded to the scene of a fatal overdose on Sweezy Avenue, an investigation showed that the victim had purchased the fentanyl-laced heroin from Mr. Brophy and that Mr. Lawrence had supplied the drug. Both men were arrested Feb. 6. 

The effort to charge drug dealers with manslaughter in the deaths of customers began in Suffolk County in August 2016, when District Attorney Tim Sini’s office indicted Roxy Headley Jr. of Mastic Beach for selling heroin laced with fentanyl that caused a fatal overdose. Mr. Headley pleaded guilty and is serving up to 15 years in prison. Four months later, Mr. Sini’s office indicted James Fava of Ronkonkoma on similar charges. Mr. Fava was the first person in the state to be convicted of manslaughter for causing a fatal overdose. He is spending up to six years in prison.

At a press conference Monday, Mr. Sini said New York State does not have a “death by dealer” statute that is specific to these kinds of situations. As a consequence, he said, prosecutors have to be creative in finding ways to charge dealers responsible for overdose deaths.

The district attorney summed up his office’s response to the overdose fatalities that every East End town has experienced: “If you are a drug dealer peddling poison in our communities and you are killing our residents, we are going to aggressively target you through a variety of investigative methods and, where appropriate, charge you with manslaughter to hold you accountable for the death that you cause.”

The significance of these latest arrests is that, even without the support of a state statute, the Suffolk DA is finding ways to hold dealers who kill responsible for their actions. That is welcome news.

If convicted of the top count of second-degree manslaughter, Mr. Brophy and Mr. Lawrence each face a maximum of 15 years in prison. Two more manslaughter arrests may not resolve the deadly opioid crisis, but they are a very good start.