Tears flowing down her cheeks, Emma Semler turned to the family of a deceased friend and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry." The mother of Jennifer Werstler—who died of a heroin overdose on the floor of a KFC bathroom on her 20th birthday in 2014—wasn't moved. "You're only sorry for yourself," Margaret Werstler replied before addressing a federal courtroom in Philadelphia on Wednesday, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Why did you … leave my child alone ... when she needed help the most? Why didn't you help save her life?" Semler, 23 or 24—who arranged for Werstler to buy heroin, provided the syringe, and used with the friend she'd met in rehab before abandoning her as she overdosed, per the Delco Times—said she would "go back and change anything" if she could. She was then sentenced to 21 years in prison for causing Werstler's death.
While perhaps bringing closure to Werstler's family, the decision runs afoul of addiction recovery advocates, who say addicts are being unfairly punished in an effort to combat an opioid epidemic that has killed more than 3,000 in Philadelphia in three years. Users who share drugs in deadly cases have been prosecuted under a Pennsylvania law originally intended to punish drug dealers, with critics arguing users may fail to call for help as a result. Semler, who faces six years of probation following her release, was convicted under a federal statute that carries a 20-year mandatory minimum, which the judge suggested she'd earned. But her lawyer described a woman who once used 10 bags of heroin a day transforming into a sponsor for other addicts after Werstler's death. "I don't know why I'm still here and not Jenny," Semler told the court. As Werstler's mom later noted, "There is no winning family." (Read more overdose stories.)