Jan. 21—ROCHESTER — When Tyler Kavitz was found unresponsive at a residence in northwest Rochester the morning of April 29, 2021, his death raised the question: Who was responsible?
An autopsy would show that he died from a toxic overdose of heroin and fentanyl.
The death of Kavitz, who battled drug addiction for years, could simply be a byproduct of his addiction. Instead, the Rochester Police Department and Olmsted County Attorney's Office found cause to blame 57-year-old Jimmie Lee Campbell, of St. Paul.
Campbell, law enforcement and the County Attorney's Office said, sold Kavitz the drugs that killed him, making him, in their eyes, the responsible party.
But a murder charge against Campbell was eventually dropped due to insufficient evidence. He still faces multiple felony drug charges in Ramsey County related to controlled substances allegedly found during his June 21, 2021, arrest.
"In order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Campbell provided the drugs that caused the overdose, we must show not only did Mr. Campbell provide the drugs in question, but also that the drugs that caused the overdose did not come from another source," Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem wrote in a July 2022 email to the Post Bulletin. "Prosecutors were able to conduct follow-up interviews with some key witnesses. Based on new information obtained in the interviews, it became apparent that the state could not meet the burden of proof."
Campbell's attorney, A.L. Brown, said the prosecution should not have continued to move forward with a case they could not win, because of the harm not only to Campbell, but to Kavitz's family.
"The state owes (Campbell) an apology but they'll never give it," Brown said. "Unless you get a lawyer to fight for you, you might take a plea agreement."
The state's case relied on cell phone tracking data that showed Kavitz meeting Campbell at a St. Paul tobacco shop where video footage showed the pair inside Campbell's vehicle.
Messages also showed a discussion between Kavitz and his girlfriend that pointed to an drug sale. (Text messages reviewed by the Post Bulletin that were obtained through a public records request for the case file confirm this discussion.)
Finally, a partial white pill found in Kavitz's wallet at the scene of his death matched pills Campbell is accused of possessing during his June 2021 arrest, according to Ostrem.
To law enforcement, this indicated a drug deal with Campbell supplying the drugs on which Kavitz overdosed.
Increasingly, as more people die of overdoses while the nation's opioid epidemic grows, law enforcement and prosecutors are trying to connect people who gave controlled substances to people who overdose, charging them with third-degree murder.
Deaths related to overdoses in Olmsted County have risen from nine in 2017 to 31 in 2021, according to a Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office report.
"To me, this is probably the latest effort to try to address the opioid crisis," said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University. "My sense is that this will probably fail, much in the same way that the criminal justice approach trying to address marijuana and other drugs has, for the most part, failed. We really haven't stemmed the tide of drug usage in America."
In an email to the Post Bulletin, Ostrem wrote that the issue of who to blame and to what degree is complex, and while his office will "aggressively prosecute large possession and sale cases, recognizing that the downstream impact is so devastating," he acknowledges sometimes a dealer's personal addiction may be a driving motive in their illegal activity.
As time wore on, several issues arose in the failed case against Campbell.
An analysis of part of the pill fragment found in Kavitz's wallet found no controlled substances, surveillance footage didn't actually prove a drug deal happened, law enforcement could not prove where Kavitz had stopped on his way to and from St. Paul, and Kavitz and his girlfriend had also discussed getting marijuana.
All of this would come out during a March 16, 2022, court hearing where RPD Investigator Brock Neumann was questioned under oath about the case.
Neumann, an eight-year veteran of RPD and a licensed peace officer since 2008, detailed that day what he called a "trail of bread crumbs," leading to the arrest of Campbell.
Kavitz and Campbell met in that tobacco shop parking lot for a total of 13 seconds, more than enough time to do a drug transaction, according to Neumann. He would testify that he did not know what Campbell allegedly gave to Kavitz.
Neumann would go on to talk about the totality of the evidence, that what it looked like was a drug deal between Kavitz, a known user of narcotics, and Campbell, someone who acts like a drug dealer.
A district judge would reject a motion by Brown to dismiss the case, prompting Brown to file a motion before an appeals court arguing that the district court had erred in its ruling.
Less than two weeks before trial, the County Attorney's Office was able to secure a statement from Kavitz's girlfriend after she was offered immunity.
She told prosecutors that Kavitz, who police knew had just left treatment due to a failed drug test, had obtained other pills from people in Rochester prior to the trip to St. Paul to meet Campbell, and she didn't know what was exchanged between the pair. She also didn't see him use any drug that potentially came from Campbell and wasn't with Kavitz when he returned to Rochester.
Left with only circumstantial evidence and nothing to tie Kavitz's death to Campbell, the County Attorney's Office dismissed the charges.
Ostrem called the investigation by the Rochester Police Department "thorough" and that investigators continued to work on the case after the initial charge was recommended.
Kavitz's girlfriend had previously declined to speak to police, only offering this information during what Ostrem called "routine trial preparation" with a witness.
When asked why immunity wasn't offered to Kavitz's girlfriend earlier, Ostrem wrote in an email that it's not routinely offered to witnesses.
"Sure, at the end of the day, my position as the elected county attorney affords me 'discretion' to charge or not charge," Ostrem wrote in an email responding to questions for this story. "I honor my oath to support the laws of the state, not to use my position to politicize or criticize the work of the legislative body."
"We value the legal process and respect the decision by prosecutors," RPD Crime Prevention & Communications Coordinator Amanda Grayson wrote in a July 2022 email about the case dismissal.
She did not respond to an email from the Post Bulletin for this story.
Body cam and police squad video footage were not released by the department.
As the opioid crisis continues to worsen across the country, some law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are pushing a punitive approach that often charges low-level street dealers, many of them addicts themselves, with murder charges.
However, experts who deal in addiction and the criminal justice system instead tout an approach that focuses on prevention as opposed to punishment.
"It's our job and obligation to enforce the laws," Ostrem wrote. "But the issue of addiction is more than just blindly enforcing laws."
As of 2018, 300,000 people were held in state or federal prison for drug-law violations, up from 25,000 in 1980, according to research by
Pew Charitable Trusts
, a global nongovernmental organization focused on improving public policy. That number rose to about 374,000 in 2020.
In Minnesota, 276 people were incarcerated with a governing drug offense in 1990, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. In 2020, that number reached 1,443 people after hitting a peak in 2005, when a quarter of the people incarcerated in Minnesota were imprisoned for drug offenses.
"I think (these prosecutions work) but I don't have any statistics to prove that," Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson said. "Whenever you can try and affect the supply chain, that's a good approach."
While the government has spent
close to a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs
, self-reported illegal drug use has continued to increase, according to Pew.
Of the seven cases in Olmsted County since 2015 in which a person buying narcotics later died of an overdose, two were dismissed due to insufficient evidence, two ended in convictions through plea deals, and three are currently active cases in the courts.
Recent Olmsted County Cases
Antonio Beasley — Charged for the 2017 overdose death of an Oronoco man.
Michelle Williams — Charged for the 2019 overdose death of police informant 32-year-old Matthew Klaus in Rochester.
104 months as part of a plea deal.
Darnell McDaniels — Charged for the 2015 overdose death of 35-year-old Daniel Kean in Rochester.
158 months as part of a plea deal.
Sean Alexander — Charged for the 2021 overdose death of an Olmsted County woman.
Timothy Loftus — Charged for the 2022 overdose death of 28-year-old Tia Arleth.
Jimmie Campbell — Charged for the 2021 overdose death of 19-year-old Tyler Kavitz in Rochester.
Dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
Lam Yieb — Charged for the 2021 overdose death of a 22-year-old Rochester man.
Dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
"These laws were meant for drug dealers in the traditionally understood definition of that, these people who are sort of maliciously profiting off of other people's compulsive substance use," said Morgan Godvin, a research associate with the Health in Justice at Northeastern University. "That is not how these laws are used. They're for the kingpins, for the El Chapos of the world, and universally, that is not how these laws are being prosecuted."
Over 50% of the cases Health in Justice examined were against people like Godvin, who was charged in the 2014 death of her friend following his overdose death in Oregon.
"They were the friends, the family, the boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives. We were not traditional drug dealers," she said. Godvin
served five years as part of a plea deal to a lesser charge
The over-reliance on charging low-level drug dealers or friends and family with these crimes stems from the fact that those types of drug deals are the most prevalent and the most visible because they often are not trying hard to cover anything up, according to Godvin.
A U.S. Sentencing Commission found that in 2009 only
11% of federal drug offenders could be defined as high-level suppliers
"Drug users are highly stigmatized and to defend a system of criminalization, we must sort of dehumanize the people who are using drugs," Godvin said. "Otherwise, it doesn't justify the mistreatment."
Ostrem contends that his office doesn't follow the national trend of targeting friends and family members, instead attempting to focus on those dealers who are strictly entrepreneurs.
"Charging cases like this will never be the end-all opportunity to stop illicit drug use or resolve the problems of addiction," Ostrem wrote. "Similar to homicides resulting from domestic abuse, or criminal vehicular homicides from drunk driving, charging the death offense won't cure the domestic violence behavior or the alcoholism, but our Legislature has opined that if someone commits those acts, there should be specific penalties."
Currently, Michelle Williams is serving a 104-month sentence after pleading guilty to a third-degree murder charge related to selling narcotics that led to the overdose death of a man working as a Rochester Police Department confidential informant. Police had the victim make three controlled purchases from Williams in March 2019, the same month the victim died.
Williams told law enforcement she is a user of heroin and would sell to certain people to fund her own addiction.
She pleaded guilty and acknowledged her role in the death, Ostrem said. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to a lower prison sentence and dismissed a pending drug case in the county against her.
The Olmsted County Attorney's Office also successfully prosecuted Darnell McDaniels in 2016. McDaniels' criminal history paints a picture of a man with a string of drug convictions related to the possession and selling of narcotics. Law enforcement connected him to several overdose deaths from heroin in 2015. He is currently serving a 158-month sentence as part of a plea deal.
In Minnesota, the drug sale must be the proximate cause of the person's death, meaning that the state must prove the defendant unlawfully gave a controlled substance to someone who later died from that drug, in order for a third-degree murder charge to stick.
"In most cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine who sold a controlled substance to the victim. Even where that can be established, it is often the case that the victim has health complications and/or has used other substances obtained from other sources, facts that make it difficult or impossible to prove the defendant's actions caused the death of the victim," Eric Woodford, chief deputy with the Olmsted County Attorney's Office wrote in an email.
In Fillmore County, a charge of third-degree murder was recently dropped against Hannah Arlene Hooper after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for the charge.
"From our case, we thought we had closed the gap (between sale and death)," Corson said, adding that each judge may deal with cases differently.
In that case, Hooper's lawyer, Kurt Kneusel, argued that Hooper sold an Oxycontin pill to a person who later died of an overdose of fentanyl.
"It was our position from the start that this charge never should have been levied against Ms. Hooper because the evidence simply didn't support it," he said.
Kneusel questioned what would have happened if Hooper didn't have a lawyer or if a judge ruled in favor of the state. In December 2022, Hooper was sentenced to a stay of imposition for up to five years for a felony third-degree drug sale connected to the Oxycontin sale. If the conditions of her sentencing are met, she may never see the inside of a prison cell. By contrast, a third-degree murder conviction carries up to 25 years in prison.
Since the now-dismissed murder charges were brought against her, Hooper has experienced instability in housing and in employment.
"Of course she has, because the state has labeled her a murderer," Kneusel said. "When people see that, they're not excited about renting to her, they're not excited about employing her, and so her life has literally kind of fallen apart."
On June 19, 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died after a night spent snorting cocaine with friends. Bias, who had been selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft two days before, was 22 years old.
Two weeks after Bias' death, the U.S. House of Representatives began drafting the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which provided a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years and a maximum life sentence, along with a fine of up to $2 million, for cases of drug distribution that led to the death or serious injury of a person.
That law, said Godvin, changed the framework of the criminal justice system.
"And that framework is essentially, most drug users are bad and criminals, but actually, sometimes they are innocent victims of another person's actions and it's that other person who is malicious, who is the murderer, who is literally to blame for the death," she said.
After the federal law was introduced to prosecute dealers, several states, including Minnesota, followed suit.
"These laws are but a part of the way we try to affect change in behaviors," Ostrem wrote. "We place a high value on life, we can't look the other way."
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences and director of The Action Lab, which looks at drug use through a public health lens, at Northeastern University, said laws used to prosecute drug dealers for the overdose deaths of their customers were used infrequently until the U.S. began to face an overdose crisis outside the inner cities and rural America.
According to Beletsky, three milestones brought the U.S. to the point where law enforcement is using those laws on low-level drug dealers:
* 1999: Higher uses of opioid analgesics outside of geographical and demographic realms of concentrated disadvantaged populations starts the "prescription drug epidemic," leading to more overdoses.
* 2010: Restrictions on legal opioids give rise to the use of street drugs like heroin, leading to even more overdoses. Prosecutors across the nation start charging more people with murder or manslaughter related to these deaths.
* 2014: The current phase of illicitly manufactured fentanyl starts. Despite law enforcement's continued focus on stopping the supply of illegal drugs, overdoses rise. More prosecutions follow.
"The United States is undergoing one of the most alarming public health crises in its modern history. After a near fourfold rise in the rate of drug-related overdose fatalities since the beginning of this century, deployment of policies and financial resources to resolve the crisis have failed to do so," Beletsky wrote in a 2018 paper titled
"America's Favorite Antidote: Drug-Induced Homicide in the Age of the Overdose Crisis."
"There is broad agreement that reducing opioid overdose deaths requires wider distribution of the opioid antidote naloxone, rapid scale-up in evidence-based treatment, and reducing stigma associated with substance use and addiction," Beletsky wrote.
Treating the opioid crisis as primarily a supply-driven issue means proven prevention and response tools are being overlooked.
"These missteps led the crisis to morph from bad to worse," he wrote.
The use of methadone and buprenorphine to treat addiction reduces mortality rates by 50%, yet the drugs are wildly underutilized, according to Godvin.
"If that were a cancer drug, it would be hailed as a miracle," she said.
Use of these drugs cuts down crime rates, Godvin said. That, and safe consumption sites, save lives.
"So, we have these interventions that we know work and choose not to do them at an extreme cost to the taxpayer," she said. "And yet, when people ask for treatment, they say, 'Well, there's not enough resources. Who's going to pay for it?' But someone dies and you'll pay $2 million to lock up another drug user."
A 2019 study by health researchers in the United States found that
opioid-dependent participants were less likely to be arrested
over a five-year period with continued treatment of buprenorphine or methadone when compared to no treatment.
The Olmsted County Attorney's Office supported the 2016 Drug Sentencing Reform Act which focused on providing rehabilitative services to lower-level drug users and sellers, according to Ostrem.
"We work closely with health care officials and treatment providers to provide opportunity for healing," Ostrem wrote. "Using the hammer of detention is generally a last resort, often for the safety of the user."