There were two dozen drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania's Lycoming County last year—each labeled accidental. Then coroner Charles Kiessling had to pronounce his friend's son dead from a heroin overdose, though he'd promised the victim's mother he'd talk to him about overcoming his addiction. "This hit me very personally," he tells PennLive. On Wednesday, Kiessling announced he'll classify all overdose deaths as homicide—meaning death at the hands of another—unless involving drugs for which the deceased had a prescription. "Drug dealers are murderers," Kiessling tells the Daily Item. "You're just as dead from a shot of heroin as if someone puts a bullet in you."
Other coroners in the state are considering following suit. "It will definitely make people take notice. The homicide rate in Pennsylvania will pick up. That's what you want, you want to bring attention to it," says the Northumberland County coroner, who's investigated three suspected drug overdoses in 10 days this month. A coroner in Union County is also weighing the change, though he notes a homicide decision "could be traumatic" for the deceased's family. "I don't care if I offend people," Kiessling says. "I just think it is the right thing to do." He's already ruled one overdose as a homicide this year. A county DA notes such a ruling "is not a legal finding of homicide" but factors into police investigations to determine if a crime was committed. (This 24-year-old's obituary bluntly addressed her heroin use.)