Addiction or Murder? The Question Prosecutors Must Answer During an Opioid Epidemic

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Callie Statema is a convicted murderer.

She did not use a murder weapon. She did not intend to kill. Yet, the 23-year old woman from Little Falls is serving three years in prison because she injected heroin with her boyfriend the night he overdosed and died in June 2016.

Statema is one of at least 45 people convicted of third-degree murder in drug overdose cases in Minnesota, according to court records.

A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS review of records from January 2007 to June 2018 found 15 of those convicted murderers, one out of every three, were not actually drug dealers.

Rather, they were drug users or addicts.

The findings highlight a question facing prosecutors in the middle of an opioid epidemic that claims hundreds of lives every year in Minnesota: If a person used drugs with an overdose victim, but did not sell the drugs, is that person an addict who didn’t intend any harm or a murderer?

More than three decades after the state legislature passed the law that allows those prosecutors to target people connected to drug overdoses, there is still no consensus on who should be held responsible.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who prosecutes such cases in the largest county in the state, said he goes after "almost exclusively, dealers who are in this business to make money."

"If it’s one addict sharing his or her stuff with another, that doesn’t raise the ire, at least in my blood, the same," Freeman said.

Opioids in Minnesota

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who has prosecuted two such cases, said the law should be used to go after anyone involved in the distribution or use of a drug that causes a deadly overdose.

"I would say (users) are responsible for the death because they are part of the chain of supply," Rubin said.

Todd Kosovich, the assistant county attorney in Morrison County who prosecuted Statema, said he pursued the murder charge because he considered her to be a drug pusher who pressured her boyfriend to use heroin.

"Those people are as evil as the dealers," Kosovich said.

Heroin Party

On June 14, 2016, Statema celebrated her 21st birthday with her boyfriend, Travis Scherping, and another friend by throwing a heroin party. They bought the drug from a dealer in Minneapolis and shot up in the basement of Statema’s mother’s house in Little Falls.

Statema said she went upstairs to order pizza and when Scherping injected another dose. When she went back downstairs, she saw that her boyfriend had vomited and turned blue.

"Right away, I knew he was overdosing," Statema said in a phone interview from Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.

After telling her mother to call 911, Statema started performing CPR, according to a criminal complaint.

Paramedics rushed Scherping to the hospital but he died two days later. He was 22 years old.

Statema, who dated Scherping for seven years, said they spent more than half of their relationship addicted to heroin.

"I have to live with this the rest of my life," she said. "I get night terrors and I dream about it."

‘Pushing, Pushing, Pushing…’

Statema said she pleaded guilty, even though she was shocked to be charged with murder, in hopes of avoiding prison time.

When she was sentenced last summer, Staema had been in recovery for more than eight months, was steadily employed at Menards and had recently been promoted.

But her recovery did not garner sympathy or forgiveness from Scherping’s grandparents. In a victim impact statement read in court, they blamed Statema for Travis’ death.

"We hope every year on her birthday she remembers killing Travis," they wrote. "We wish he never met you for what you did to him."

They did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Kosovich, the assistant county attorney, believes the three-year sentence is appropriate because Statema "was just pushing, pushing, pushing and finally the young man died."

"I think the best cases that are prosecutable, there has to be a bad guy," he said. "The pusher is a recognizable bad guy."

‘You Need to Go Higher’

Statema’s family and addiction specialists said prosecutors like Kosovich are going after the wrong people.

"I think it’s really unfair. I mean, Callie is guilty of having it… but she’s not guilty of killing Travis," Carrie Statema, Callie’s mother, said. "You need to go higher."

The dealer who sold the drugs that killed Scherping was also charged with third-degree murder and is awaiting a new trial after the first one ended with a hung jury.

Dr. Mark Willenbring, an addiction specialist in St. Paul, said Statema’s case shows prosecutors are casting too wide of a net. One that will not actually catch the high-level dealers the state law was supposed to target.

"The people who are going to get nabbed are the little people," Willenbring said. "I think we are just trying to find a scapegoat here."

Statema, who is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2021, regrets accepting the plea deal.

"Yes, Travis died but I don’t feel like I murdered him," she said.

Statema said she fears the conviction will prevent her from moving on after she walks out of prison.

"It really, really scares me," she said. "I have to put on my resume that I have a third-degree murder on my record."