Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Pending bill could invoke death penalty for fentanyl homicide

January 20, 2023 6:02 am
Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Tennessee might be struggling with its execution protocol, but state Rep. Mike Sparks is ready to put more heads on the chopping block.

The Smyrna Republican is preparing to sponsor legislation that could make fentanyl a “weapon of mass destruction” and lead to the death penalty for dealers who cause someone’s death.

“What I really want to do is get people to engage and think about how serious this is,” Sparks says. 

During a town hall three years ago, Sparks met a young woman who held up a picture of her son who died from ingesting a substance laced with fentanyl. The state lawmaker was struck by the encounter and has been thinking about taking up the fight against fentanyl since then.

“It’s not only a threat now, it’s going to be a huge threat in the years to come,” he says, noting he believes it is a “weapon of mass destruction.”

About 200,000 people have died from fentanyl overdoses, he contends. Sparks believes more young people will continue to succumb to the drug, a synthetic opioid designed for treating severe pain such as that resulting from cancer.

A bill to be introduced by Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna would classify fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction” and deaths from overdoses as and “act of terrorism.” If the bill is successful, fentanyl dealers could be charged with first-degree murder and subject to the death penalty.

It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and even though prescription rates have dropped, overdoses have gone up dramatically, according to information Sparks is handing out. The drug is often mixed with heroin or cocaine without the user’s knowledge.

Under the bill he plans to introduce, conviction for possession of fentanyl would mirror the standards for Class A and Class B felonies, 15 to 60 years and a $50,000 fine for the former and eight to 30 years and a $25,000 fine for the latter. 

But as an “act of terrorism” resulting in the loss of life, a fentanyl dealer could be charged with first-degree murder and subject to the death penalty, life in prison without the possibility of parole or life with parole.

The pending legislation also would kick in civil actions in which victims of fentanyl could file suit against the person responsible for any injury caused by the illegal drug.

Gov. Bill Lee put executions on hold last May after finding out the Department of Correction violated guidelines for lethal injections. A third-party investigation recently found a litany of problems within the department’s handling of the drugs.

The governor has no intention of stopping executions but recently predicted the Tennessee Supreme Court wouldn’t sign any death row warrants until the state updates its rules for lethal injections to make sure they’re handled properly. 

If Sparks has his way, Tennessee could be putting a lot more people to death or in prison for a long time. The question is whether the Legislature agrees, and several members in this Republican-controlled body probably will.

Remembering Eliza

State Rep. John Gillespie is bringing legislation in reaction to the kidnapping, rape and murder of Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher.

The Bartlett Republican’s House Bill 5 will increase the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape and especially aggravated rape. It also mirrors federal and state laws that place people on the sexual offenders registry for kidnapping a child. Anyone convicted of kidnapping an adult would be placed on the same registry.

“The rationale for that is most aggravated kidnapping cases, unfortunately, have some sort of sexual component to them,” Gillespie says.

The second-term House member, who was a “close family friend” of Fletcher, calls the measure a “transparency” and “truth-in-sentencing” law, noting people deserve to know if their neighbor has kidnapped someone.

Rep. John Gillespie, R-Bartlett (Photo: TN.gov)
Rep. John Gillespie, R-Bartlett (Photo: TN.gov)

“I hate to make it personal,” Gillespie says, but he contends such a law is a long time coming.

The 34-year-old kindergarten teacher was abducted while making her morning run in early September 2022. Her body was found three days later after she’d been raped and shot to death.

Cleotha Abston is charged with aggravated kidnapping and murder. He had spent 20 years in prison for kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand in May 2001.

In the wake of Fletcher’s death, another woman told authorities Abston raped her in September 2021. The results of a rape kit, however, weren’t complete until August 2022, identifying Abston as the culprit.

Gov. Lee then stepped in and found money to expedite a backlog of rape kits piling up on the shelves of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Many people wondered why Fletcher’s death was the catalyst.

Worship and inaugurate

Gov. Lee is going full tilt on his second inauguration after winning a second term, set to put on a worship service and musical event at Ryman Auditorium early Saturday, followed by the ceremony on the War Memorial Plaza across the street from the State Capitol.

“The Lord has been faithful and poured his great favor over Tennessee,” Lee says in a statement. “Maria and I invite Tennesseans to join us for a celebration of our state, as we thank God for our many blessings and seek his wisdom in the days ahead.”

While some might question whether they’re on the same spiritual plane as the governor or even moving in the same direction, there’s always hope and music will be plentiful.

Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Chris McClarney, Nicole C. Mullen, Chris Tomlin and the Fisk Jubilee Singers are to perform at the Mother Church at 8:30 a.m.

The governor will be re-sworn into office by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Page at 11 a.m. in a joint convention of the 113th General Assembly.

The inaugural ball is set for 8 p.m. at the Fisher Center on Belmont Boulevard, a $350-per-ticket soiree. Everything else is free and open, although space will be limited. Anyone who isn’t hoping to attend should avoid downtown Nashville at all costs, because several streets will be blocked around the plaza and Capitol. You might have to pray for a parking place too.

Cutting HIV funds

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported this week the Tennessee Department of Health is set to stop providing federal funds for HIV prevention to groups unaffiliated with the metro health departments.

A department spokesman sent a letter to previous grant recipients notifying them Centers for Disease Control funds won’t come their way any longer.

“These arrangements were made under prior administrations, and this administration is examining areas where it can decrease its reliance on federal funding and assume increased independence,” the letter says. 

There’s nothing pro-life about punishing people who are living with HIV and enabling this virus to spread undetected.

– Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis

Democrats call the decision by the Lee administration the latest instance of the governor “turning his back” on the state’s most vulnerable residents. 

“It is difficult for those of us who have personally experienced a loved one suffering and ultimately dying from this horrible virus to view this decision as anything less than a heartless act and offensive – it’s beyond the pale,” says state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, chairman of House Democrats.

State Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, predicts the decision will cause the spread of HIV and premature deaths. She notes the state had made “steady progress” in dealing with the disease.

“There’s nothing pro-life about punishing people who are living with HIV and enabling this virus to spread undetected,” Lamar says.

AIDSVu, a project of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, reported 18,207 Tennesseans were living with HIV in 2020, according to a Senate Democrats press release.

No doubt, God is looking down.

Forget Dick and Jane

The argument over third-grade reading and promotion of students will continue this year with Rep. David Hawk sponsoring a bill to return decisions to the local level.

After the COVID-19 pandemic that led to school closings, more online learning and general dysfunction, the Legislature held a special session in which they spent tens of millions to set up fancy summer school and tutoring programs. Who knew that kids who struggle to read might benefit from some extra help?

Lawmakers also gave the state Department of Education authority to decide whether third-graders who scored insufficiently on the test to end all tests should be held back if they didn’t go to summer school or take extensive tutoring through the fourth grade.

The argument isn’t whether third-graders need help. It’s whether the state or local educators should make the decision on whether children should repeat the third grade.

Hawk’s bill returns that authority to the local level where some believe it should have been all along.

The Greeneville Republican shies away from criticizing the Legislature’s decision two years ago, pointing out steps had to be taken at a critical time. 

His legislation keeps the summer reading and tutoring programs in place. Now, though, he says it’s time to refocus and let local educators decide whether those children should be promoted. Who ever heard of letting folks at ground zero make the decision? Shouldn’t big brother decide? Hawk could have a fight on his hands.

Coming down on Kelsey

Germantown resident Dewey Gordon Bryan is urging U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw to impose the harshest penalty possible on former state Sen. Brian Kelsey in connection with his guilty plea on federal campaign finance violations.

Bryan recently sent a letter to the judge pointing out that the evidence was so overwhelming that Kelsey didn’t even try to clear his name at trial, even though he maintained innocence for nearly a year. Not until co-defendant, Josh Smith, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors did Kelsey cop a plea in his scheme to shift state funds to his failed 2006 congressional campaign. It’s illegal to use state campaign money for a federal race.

Sen. Brian Kelsey. R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)
Former Sen. Brian Kelsey, photographed in the Tennessee Capitol in 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Brian Kelsey is not an innocent victim. He is (was) a lawyer. He used his law education and experience to scheme to break laws he was sworn to uphold. He was the hub around which all the spokes of these crimes emanated,” Bryan’s letter says. “He was so guilty he was forced to negotiate a plea deal, not having the nerve or confidence to take the risk of ‘… being cleared at trial.’”

The Tennessee Supreme Court suspended Kelsey’s law license in December and referred the case back to the state Board of Responsibility, which will hold a hearing as part of the process to determine whether he can practice law again in the state of Tennessee.

Bryan points out Kelsey’s plea agreement contains no contrition or apology to his former constituents or the state.

The Germantown Republican faces five years in prison, three years of probation and a $250,000 fine on each charge. Sentencing is set for June 9 but could be earlier.

Prediction: The judge will take Bryan’s letter into consideration but mete out a short sentence in a federal facility and a hefty fine.

“Forty days of shotguns and barbed wire fences/ Forty nights to sit and listen to the midnight train to Memphis.”



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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