Overdose Lifeline — He accidentally injected his wife with fentanyl instead of heroin. It wasn’t murder, court says

Crystal Hill, Indianapolis Star, September 12, 2019
Due to its lethal potency, the synthetic opioid named fentanyl has claimed hundreds of Hoosiers’ lives in recent years. Dwight Adams, dwight.adams@indystar.com

The next thing Nathaniel Walmsley remembered, after shooting up his wife, Rachel, and then himself with what he thought was heroin, was seeing his wife passed out on the bathroom floor.

When they used heroin together, Walmsley would usually inject his wife, Rachel, first, according to his attorneys. The afternoon of July 30, 2017, was no different: Nathaniel purchased heroin from a friend and “shot” up Rachel and then himself at their Batesville home, court documents said.

Rachel died. Nathaniel lived. An autopsy later revealed that it wasn’t heroin that had killed her — it was fentanyl, a more potent and lethal opioid.

The tragedy spurred Nathaniel, 38, toward recovery, according to his attorney, Stacey Uliana. He stopped using drugs and drinking alcohol. The couple has four kids, Uliana said, and he was determined to get clean for them and for Rachel.

“He was a victim and so was his wife,” Uliana said. “His plan is to never to touch (heroin) again.”

But his sobriety continued behind bars. Walmsley was charged with felony murder for injecting his wife with the deadly fentanyl. Prosecutors said Walmsley had dealt the drugs to his wife by administering the drugs to her.

Walmsley’s attorneys fought the charge and found success in the Court of Appeals. In a ruling that essentially dismissed the offense, the appeals court said that the couple possessed the drugs and used them together and that injecting her should not be defined as dealing drugs.

Now, the countdown has begun for the state, which has 30 days from the Aug. 29 decision to ask the Indiana Supreme Court to hear arguments in the case. Whatever the state decides will inform local authorities’ decision on if or how they will charge Walmsley moving forward.

The decision to charge Walmsley in the first place points to what some consider a misguided and ineffective approach to stemming the scourge of opioid abuse. It’s an approach that’s emblematic of a rush to criminalize drug use instead of prioritizing treatment, experts say.

“These were (people) who were consenting to each other’s drug use, and helping each other shoot up,” said Nicolas Terry, the executive director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University. “Now, that is sad. That is horrific. That is a life being lost. But I’m not sure it’s something that we should go around prosecuting.”

Why Walmsley was charged with murder

Rachel Walmsley’s death came after a yearslong battle the couple had with addiction, according to Nathaniel’s attorneys.

The couple drank alcohol and smoked marijuana when they were younger, occasionally using harder drugs, such as heroin. As they got older and eventually started a family, though, they mostly stopped, according to court documents.

But sometime in 2017, Nathaniel and Rachel relapsed, court documents said. And that summer, their battle with drug addiction ended in tragedy.

Much of Walmsley’s memory of Rachel’s decline seems to fail him, according to his attorneys. He doesn’t remember Rachel collapsing, or how exactly he ended up in his hallway. At the time, he told police he didn’t even remember injecting himself with the drug.

But what he does remember, his attorneys said, is that he and Rachel both discussed and decided to buy and use heroin. Nathaniel texted his friend, James Trimnell, to make the request, while Rachel’s bartending tips — $100 — covered the cost, court documents said. They used the drugs around 7 p.m., according to Walmsley.

He later found his wife barely breathing.

Walmsley didn’t immediately seek medical attention, though. Instead, he and his 15-year-old son moved her upstairs, where Nathaniel checked on her a few times throughout the night, according to court documents. Nathaniel eventually drove Rachel to the hospital. She died soon after her arrival.

Walmsley wasn’t in his right mind, Uliana told IndyStar.

“He had taken the same fentanyl as Rachel,” she said. “For some reason, he woke up and Rachel did not. His failure to get her help is something he will have to live with forever.”

In November 2017, Walmsley and Trimnell were both charged with felony murder in Rachel’s death. Walmsley’s attorneys sought a dismissal in trial court. But a Ripley County judge said the matter should be decided by a jury, finding that the “act of injecting” Rachel was enough for a possible felony murder conviction against Nathaniel— even if Rachel also owned the drugs.

Ripley County Prosecutor Richard Hertel believes it was the first such case in Indiana.

“I am unaware of any cases in Indiana prior to this filing where the prosecutor charged felony murder, with similar facts,” he told IndyStar. “I don’t believe any exist.”

Under Indiana law, a person who kills another human being while dealing in or manufacturing a narcotic, among other offenses, has committed felony murder. But Uliana indicated that it’s rare for prosecutors to go this route.

“This is really the only county that has tried such a thing,” she said. “Most prosecutors haven’t overcharged.”

Hertel told IndyStar he believes probable cause existed to bring the charge against Walmsley.

“The penal system is set up for punishment as well as rehabilitation, both,” Hertel said.

Prosecuting drug cases

But in the case against Walmsley, the allegations against him in the probable cause affidavit also seemed to work in his favor.

The state never disputed what Walmsley told police about how the heroin ended up in the couple’s possession, the Court of Appeals said. Nor did the state deny Rachel’s involvement, according to the opinion.

The murder charge was based on Walmsley delivering the drug to his wife by injecting her, the appeals court said. But the affidavit says they both agreed to buy heroin from Trimnell, the court said in its opinion, and Rachel even funded the purchase.

“Because the evidence shows that Nathaniel and Rachel jointly acquired possession of the drug for their own use the moment Trimnell dropped it off at their house, Nathaniel did not ‘deliver’ the drug to Rachel when he injected her,” the opinion said. So Walmsley can’t be charged with felony murder.

For Walmsley’s attorney, Uliana, the ruling made sense of what she felt was a baffling decision to charge Walmsley with murder. Especially after Trimnell, who was also charged with murder, successfully got the offense thrown out first.  

“I’ve been perplexed from the very beginning,” Uliana said. “Why are we treating Nathaniel worse than the guy who dealt it?”

And for those who advocate for a more progressive handling of straightforward drug cases, the Walmsley case and others like it represent a tough-on-crime approach that some say is counterproductive and outdated, experts told IndyStar.

“Drug-induced homicides are in no way a new approach,” said Michael Collins, of the Drug Policy Alliance. “They’re the embodiment of the War on Drugs. And until we move away from those policies where we believe that we can arrest our way out of the (opioid) crisis, then these overdose deaths are going to continue to increase.”

Terry said while he doesn’t support doing away with prosecuting drug-related crimes, cases that seek to punish users for drug offenses and deaths don’t target the actual causes of the addiction.

“They assume a kind of moral, blameworthy approach to substance use disorders,” he said. “That if a terrible event has happened, then someone can and must be blamed for it. The causes of addictions are far more complex than some individual’s blameworthy conduct.”

Both Terry and Collins said prosecutors should use more discretion when deciding to bring charges in drug cases. That could mean looking more closely at the perceived costs and benefits of prosecuting a drug user or dealer, Collins said.

“If we charge this guy with homicide, what’s the public safety benefit? What are the costs of that? What are the costs to the community? What are the costs to an individual’s family in taking this person off the streets and putting them behind bars for life?”

What should happen to Walmsley?

Now that the murder charge against Walmsley has been dismissed, Hertel told IndyStar he believes his office will still bring charges against Trimnell. Walmsley could possibly face a different charge too, depending on the state’s decision to challenge the appeals court ruling.

Last year, Indiana lawmakers created a new penalty for dealers tied to overdose deaths. But Rachel Walmsley’soverdose happened prior to the law change, so it didn’t apply, according to Hertel. And even if Walmsley had been charged with the offense, it’s unclear if it would have stuck.

“I have (spoken to) parents who have lost their children who felt the need to prosecute dealers,” said Justin Phillips, the founder of Indianapolis-based nonprofit Overdose Lifeline, who lost a son to a heroin overdose in 2013. “But I don’t think at the end of the day, they’re going to tell you that (it) changes the fact that their loved one is dead. This is a chronic disease of the brain. It’s a public health issue; it is not a criminal issue.”

The question of what accountability will look like for Walmsley has not yet been answered — at least by the state. When reached for comment, the Office of the Indiana Attorney General said it is reviewing the appeals court decision and will “proceed in the best interests of the state.”

“I would like to see transfer sought,” Hertel told IndyStar. “So the (Indiana) Supreme Court can make a determination about this, because I think it probably does have some future implications. But I understand, too, that it’s going to be their decision, and whatever it is, I will respect that.”

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