In the weeks after Henry died, as I began researching the issue of victim’s rights when it came to overdose deaths, I rather quickly discovered something I hadn’t been aware of before; Tennessee’s Criminal Code clearly defines death caused by the distribution of illicit drugs as second degree homicide. Furthermore, I learned that our Federal Criminal Code and many other states also have statutes defining some form of drug-induced homicide as a major crime warranting penalties ranging from reckless manslaughter all the way to murder..

Because I believed it could be proved which two older adult drug dealers had distributed the opiate drug that caused Henry’s death, I took this information regarding Tennessee’s second degree homicide statute to then-Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols’ office to discuss with his prosecutors the possibility of engaging in an investigation that could possibly warrant second degree homicide charges in my teenager’s death. The prosecutors with whom we met that day were extremely dismissive. They informed us that they would be unlikely to ever attempt to prosecute a drug-induced homicide case (they had only taken one on in the previous 20 years, I later learned) because making such a case would be too difficult for them to even attempt. One of the two prosecutors in the same meeting – a meeting held with me, Henry’s father and his stepmother, so we all heard him say this – also told us that bringing a case against the dealers who killed our son would be too hard because as a kid with a substance abuse problem, Henry would be an “unattractive victim” to bring before grand jurors or jurors.

Next I attempted to meet with Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones to discuss investigating Henry’s death with an eye toward second degree homicide charges that would shut down the drug dealers who killed Henry before they killed any other teenagers. However, I can’t really tell you what he thought of the idea since to this day, he’s refused to so much as talk to me on the phone regarding Henry’s death.

I simply couldn’t get anyone in any position of power within Knox County government to see Henry as the victim of a crime rather than as a teenager who essentially died at his own hand. The drug dealers who delivered the deadly dose of opiates that killed Henry were eventually arrested approximately 18 months after Henry died. But this happened only after I met with city police officials (as opposed to the county criminal justice officials who treated us with such disrespect). City police enforcement along with assistance from DEA agents were able to nab the dealers for – you guessed it – dealing drugs to a minor (who in this case didn’t die because he was actually assisting law enforcement.) The Knoxville Police Department was able to make these drug dealing arrests by having one of Henry’s very brave friends agree to wear a wire during monitored drug buys from these particular dealers. Due to all these heroes to me, these two derelicts at least received some time behind bars for dealing inside the city.

However, city police officials couldn’t pursue any drug-induced homicide charges against these dealers because Henry’s fatal overdose was suffered in the dealers’ home, which happened to be in the county, not the city. However, I will be forever grateful to KPD Chief David Rausch and his team, along with a DEA undercover agent whom I obviously won’t name for bringing some kind of charges against the two dealers who killed Henry. These criminal justice officials really cared, and they took the actions available to them to make the case that dealers who kill our teenagers aren’t welcome in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Almost as soon as it became clear to me that county criminal justice officials intended to do exactly nothing to undertake a meaningful investigation into the circumstances of Henry’s death, I became more and more convinced that not only should Tennessee’s criminal statute define delivery of illicit drugs resulting in death be deemed a homicide but that delivery of illicit drugs resulting in a minor’s death (defined as the delivery of drugs to a victim under the age of 21 by. dealer over the age of 21)  should be deemed an even more serious crime. After all, our teenagers are especially vulnerable by virtue of their age to both drug abuse and to targeting by adult dealers. My teenage son was addicted to drugs when he died. This is a fact. However that didn’t make him any less of a victim under Tennessee’s current second degree homicide statute. The fact that a teenage drug addict who then dies might ask for or even buy the fatal dose of drugs from an adult dealer doesn’t make the dealer’s behavior any less of a crime. After all, if a teenager asked or even paid for an adult to shoot him in the head, it isn’t any less of a crime if the adult follows through with shooting the teen.

With so much positive activity going on with Henry’s Fund in the last several years, my belief that Tennessee’s Criminal Code needs to be strengthened to better protect our teens from older, drug dealing predators never went away. I was just waiting to address the issue until I felt strong enough to address it with the decision makers whose support I would need to amend our current second degree homicide law to include enhanced sentencing for dealers who kill minors.

Finally, in recent months, I felt strongly in my heart that the time was right to work for the passage of what I hoped would be called “Henry’s Law.” When considering whom I should approach first with my proposal for the new law, I immediately thought of Tennessee’s Lt. Governor, Randy McNally, perhaps the most principled legislator I know. I reached out to Lt. Gov. McNally with my proposal for Henry’s Law and he immediately put me in touch with his legislative aide, Tim Sigler (I hope I’m spelling Tim’s name right. I’ll double check that and correct it if I haven’t.)

Tim and I spoke several times during which I made my case that Henry’s Law would strengthen our existing drug-induced homicide law, put dealer-murderers of children behind bars for a longer period of time, and offer law enforcement and prosecutors an even more powerful tool in their toolbox to go after dealers as our state and nation stagger under the weight of the unprecedented epidemic of opiate overdose deaths. I was also able to demonstrate that other state and federal prosecutors are more and more using available drug-induced homicide laws to lock major dealers away for longer periods of time so they won’t have access to our at-risk kids.

Tim and Lt. Gov. McNally moved fast, lining up state legislators Sen. Becky Duncan Massey and Rep. Jason Zachary as co-sponsors of Henry’s Law, which states:

Criminal Offenses – As introduced, enacts “Henry’s Law”; requires that a person convicted for second degree murder resulting from unlawful distribution of Schedule I or II drug where victim is a minor be sentenced, at a minimum, as a Range II offender. – Amends TCA Section 39-13-210 and Title 40, Chapter 35.

Things continued to move quickly, and I was invited to come to Tennessee’s Capitol Hill on Tuesday of last week to testify before the House Crime and Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee to share Henry’s story and to explain why I believe Henry’s Law is important. I quickly agreed. I asked if I could bring my sister Betsy with me for support and was assured that this was absolutely fine.

On the morning that Betsy and I drove to Nashville, I was weepy, very weepy. This was because although I’ve written a lot about Henry’s death, and spoken to the media, this would be the very first time I’d ever addressed a live audience about my son’s life, death, and what I hope that his legacies will be. During the drive from Knoxville to Nashville, Betsy helped me work and re-work the notecards I intended to use when I testified before the two committees. I also had a framed 8x10 photo of Henry that I hoped to have time to show the committee members.

Well, to make a long story short, after being introduced by Rep. Zachary and Sen. Massey, everything I’d written on my notecards flew out the window while in my quavering, emotional voice I put my notes aside and simply told legislators from my heart a bit about Henry and explained to them what had happened to him, and I also explained why I believe Henry’s Law is so important. I did manage to show them my photo of Henry and thank them all profusely for their attention to this issue.

The legislators couldn’t have been more kind and considerate to me, with more than a few explaining to me that they, too, are parents and would want anyone who might hurt their children held fully accountable. The bill that will (see, I’m optimistic saying “will” instead of “may”) become Henry’s Law passed both committees that day by unanimous vote. I couldn’t believe it. This is really happening.

Next the bill will go before the Ways and Means Committee to have its fiscal impact explored and then it will be ready for a vote, perhaps as part of the governor’s budget since he has recently announced his intention to tackle the opiate crisis in our state head-on. I now truly believe that Henry’s Law will become law in our state. I really do. I mean, we already hold dealers who sell within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center to enhanced sentencing guidelines. It only makes sense that we would hold adult dealers who actually sell the most dangerous drugs out there directly to our kids and who kill them to enhanced sentencing guidelines as well.

I can’t thank Lt. Gov. McNally, Sen. Massey and Rep. Zachary enough for their strong leadership on Henry’s Law. Both Sen. Massey and Rep. Zachary made time before and after the committee votes to spend some one on one time with Betsy and me to talk about Henry and who he was. This meant a whole lot to me.

During the whole day at legislative plaza and in the days since I have felt Henry’s presence with me, saying, “Good job, Mama.” I just know that he was with me. Henry did not want to die the same week that his classmates and friends graduated high school and he certainly didn’t want any other teenagers in our state to die as he did – at the hands of murderous adult dealers who are more interested in the money they can make on their next sale as opposed to being interested in who that deal is made with.

Thank you again so much to all of you for your kind words in the days since Betsy and I returned from Nashville. Your support for our family and for Henry’s Law means more to me than I can express. I will keep everyone posted as things progress.

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