Haywood county conversations reveal ripple effects from overdose murder conviction

The 2018 murder conviction of a Haywood County man charged with selling narcotics linked to a deadly overdose has caught the attention of public health researchers. They’ve published a paper that raises questions about the harsh punishment. BPR’s Helen Chickering talked with the researchers over Zoom about the behind the scenes work that led to the findings. 

Their resumes are filled with academic credentials, but the skills and methods key to the work by public health researchers Jennifer Carroll PhD, MPH  and   Bayla Ostrach MA, PhD  often don’t show up on paper.   As medical anthropologists, they spend a lot of time listening and observing, often embedding themselves in communities as Ostrach has done in Western North Carolina for the past four years, as an independent community based-harm reduction researcher.

“Just paying attention to what people are talking about is one of the best ways to do research,”   

 notesOstrach,  “spend time with them and see what they want to talk about.”

Carroll’s work also focuses on harm reduction among substance users.  That includes things like access to sterile syringes and the overdose reversal medicine naloxone.  She  is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at NC State University  in Raleigh.                                                                                              

“As anthropologists, we are both interested not only in human behavior, but how people are making sense of their own behavior,” says Carroll, “not just whether you get the flu shot, but how do you think about the flu shot, and what makes you get up and drive your car to get it.”

In 2018, a high-profile murder case in Haywood County,  opened a window for collaboration.

“News at five, A local man convicted of multiple drug charges, now faces charges in a woman’s death.”  (credit: WLOS news)

The case made headlines across North Carolina, for the harsh and rare charge of murder linked to an overdose death .  Thirty-six-year-old James Dotson was later convicted of second-degree murder for selling narcotics to a 20-year-old woman who died after taking the drugs. It was county’s first major conviction for distribution linked to a fatal overdose and was hailed as a victory for taking a danger off the street.

Not making the news, says Carroll, were the subtle ripple effects that Dotson’s sentence and absence were having on the community.

“There are people in Haywood County who are telling us they are not calling 911 because they are afraid of getting charged with murder.”

Comments she first heard in 2019 –  while conducting interviews  in the county as part of a harm reduction study.  Carroll says the remarks  came up independently  prompting her to dig deeper .

“ I brought it up in subsequent interviews, and everyone had an opinion,  an experience to share about that particular case, it was something they were familiar with. And most people I talked to  indicated there had been impacts to some degree,  either moderate or significant, and affecting them and their safety as a result of that particular case.”

Ostrach – who was conducting separate research, was hearing it too. And while the fear around calling 911 when witnessing an overdose  topped the list,  conversations also revealed a short-lived but notable dilution in the local drug supply immediately following the Dotson conviction, often prompting users to buy more drugs , which Carroll notes, could increase the risk of overdose.

Sidebar findings that while not conclusive,  provided important observational data, says Carroll, who along with Ostrach, and staff from the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition,  published a paper about the Haywood county feedback.

“To best of our knowledge, what we published first empirical data about what impacts of a case like this have been in a specific community, that’s important to get out in the literature so people could learn from it, talk about it and use this in their broader research “

The two are making plans  to do more research into the community impact  of a  death by distribution conviction,  which  in 2019 – inspired by the Haywood County case – became law in North Carolina.

“And I’d really like to understand, beyond Haywood,  is a case like this is it hyper-local, just that people happen to know the defendant, or are there similar understandings, concerns about the effect of this law in other places?”

Questions this pair of medical anthropologists know will take a lot  more listening and observing – to answer. I’m Helen Chickering BPR News.

The paper,  “Drug induced homicide laws may worsen opioid related harms: An example from rural North Carolina,”  was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, More than 93,000 people lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2020.

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