York County coroner won't label heroin deaths homicides

Greg Gross

Pam Gay, the York County coroner, doesn't intend to start ruling heroin-relate deaths as homicides after another coroner in the central part of the state announced he will do so.

The Lycoming County coroner, Charles Kiessling, said last week he will label the deaths as homicides in an effort to draw attention to the heroin problem there, the (Sunbury) Daily Item reported.

"I am not going to be following suit at this point," Gay said on Monday, adding, "I can definitely understand why coroners do that."

Coroners have traditionally marked heroin-related deaths as accidental on death certificates. But even if a coroner rules a heroin-related death a homicide, it may not have much legal footing.

Legally: Tom Kearney, the York County district attorney, said the legal definition of homicide varies from what a coroner considers homicide.

For example, a coroner would rule  a police-involved shooting a homicide since the a person was killed by another person. But a district attorney could rule it was justifiable and not legally a homicide. By the same token, a coroner could rule a death from a vehicle crash an accident, but a district attorney could later bring charges against someone that caused the crash.

"We look at the criminal code," Kearney said. "I'm not sure there's any bearing on" a district attorney if a coroner rules a heroin-related death a homicide.

Though Gay won't change the death certificate designation from accidental to homicide, that doesn't mean some drug dealers who provide heroin to users who end up dead don't feel the wrath of the long arm of the law. County officials have laid the charge of drug delivery resulting in death against people who have sold deadly heroin, Gay and Kearney noted.

The first-degree felony has the same maximum sentence as third-degree murder — 20 to 40 years in prison.

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Increase: There has been a drastic uptick in heroin-related deaths in York County and nationally in recent years. And York County could be on pace to see more deaths this year.

In 2014, 62 deaths were reported in York County, but the number of deaths increased to 65 last year. So far this year, there have been three confirmed and 10 suspected heroin-related deaths for a total of 13. There were 11 deaths through the same time last year, Gay said.

County officials have been working to combat heroin use the past couple of years. The Heroin Task Force, comprised of officials such as Gay and Kearney and community members, has been holding meetings across the county to raise awareness since its inception in 2014.

"We're going to do what we've been doing," Gay said.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.