First Assistant District Attorney discusses complexity in investigating and prosecuting overdose death cases

July 22, 2022

The Monroe County Office of the District Attorney is committed to combating the opioid epidemic in our community.  A significant part of that commitment involves the investigation and prosecution of those who peddle dangerous drugs, and in particular, those who supply drugs that ultimately result in the death of the person to whom they provided the drugs.

The Pocono Record recently addressed this topic in a news story titled, Monroe DA:  COVID-19 and complicated case elements delay trial in Kerrigan Rohsler’s death (I’ll link the original article to that title).  Rohsler, whose body was found in a dumpster in East Stroudsburg in 2021 after being placed there following an overdose on fentanyl-laced heroin and Xanax, is one of the local high-profile cases highlighting the tragedy of this ongoing epidemic, but she is far from the only one.

As quoted in the article, between 2015 and 2019, investigators in Monroe County charged 26 individuals with drug delivery resulting in death.  But that number doesn’t tell the full story.  First Assistant District Attorney Michael Mancuso points out that many of those cases, and the more recent cases charged since 2019, are being prosecuted by federal authorities.  This transfer to the federal justice system can give a false appearance of fewer prosecutions than are actually occurring. 

The Criminal Investigations Division is the investigative arm of the District Attorney’s Office.  Staffed by police officers employed directly by the District Attorney’s Office, these detectives are involved in nearly every drug delivery resulting in death investigation in the county offering their specialized knowledge and resources to the lead police agency conducting the investigation.  The Criminal Investigations Division has a detective assigned to the “Safe Streets Task Force” with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Scranton.  Similarly, both the Stroud Area Regional Police Department and the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department have officers assigned to federal task forces.  This close working relationship with federal law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office allows for an easier transfer of these cases from the state system to the federal system, bringing to bear a litany of federal resources on cases that often cross not only county lines, but state lines too.

According to First Assistant District Attorney Mancuso, there are currently five trials pending in federal court stemming from drug delivery death cases originated in Monroe County, including one which starts this Monday.  Eight more defendants are on track to be indicted and tried in federal court in the near future.

Despite these successes, much still needs to be done.  Several years ago, after seeing that these types of cases being neglected, First Assistant District Attorney spearheaded the formation of a task force designed to focus on opioid overdoses.  This task force takes a major case approach to overdose deaths, similar to the way that homicide cases are investigated. 

This aggressive approach to these cases seems to be paying off.  As First Assistant District Attorney Mancuso noted, recently there’s been reports that drug dealers try to avoid delivering their drugs in Monroe County because they know that our office will exhaust every resource to hold them accountable. 

But as effective as prosecution is proving, First Assistant District Attorney Mancuso notes that a multi-pronged approach is necessary if we wish to truly reduce the number of overdose deaths.  Focusing efforts on helping addicts before they overdose is critical.  While it will take time to create such an initiative, it’s necessary.  As First Assistant District Attorney Mancuso said in the Pocono Record article, “It comes down to getting more resources and efforts for rehabilitation. It’s not easy for opioid addiction; that’s where we should be trying to put a lot of our focus in. That, and there’s a mental health component to that often gets overlooked in this cycle. And we are woefully under-resourced for anything like that.”

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