Jenny Werstler died of a heroin overdose after 20 years of life, abandoned on a KFC’s bathroom floor in West Philadelphia.
On Wednesday, the friend who used the drug with her and left her that night was sentenced to at least as many years for causing her death.
Emma Semler, 24, of Collegeville, sat in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia, kneading a tissue with her fingers, as a judge announced she would spend the next 21 years in prison.
“I have extreme remorse,” she said through tears. “If I could go back and change anything, I would.”
Jennifer Rose Werstler’s death on her 20th birthday in 2014 and Semler’s subsequent prosecution are another tragic tale among the many that have emerged from the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 3,000 people in Philadelphia in the last three years.
The two women met in rehab in Delaware County. Both relapsed. One died. The other lived, finally got sober, and survived to pay the price.
Addiction recovery advocates, many of whom packed the courtroom Wednesday, have rallied around Semler’s case as an example of an increasingly common prosecution strategy that has left addicted drug users facing significant prison terms under laws originally designed to punish dealers.
But if Semler’s emotionally charged sentencing hearing showed anything, it was that the decisions behind those cases are often fraught with competing interests.
U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter interrupted Semler as she stood before the court, recounting her path to sobriety and her devotion since then to helping others get clean. The judge noted that despite her regret and reform, Semler had not yet apologized to Werstler’s family.
In response, she turned toward the gallery, tears streaming down her face, and mouthed a quiet “I’m sorry.”
Werstler’s mother, Margaret, clutching a framed photo of her daughter in her hands, called out: “You’re only sorry for yourself.”
Her hands clasped together, Semler pleaded: “I should be dead as well. I don’t know why I’m still here and not Jenny.”
When it was her turn to address the court, Margaret Werstler challenged Semler again.
“For almost five years, I have been asking myself and God, ‘Why? Why my baby? Why did my only child die?’” she asked, her voice choking with grief. “Why did you … leave my child alone during the most important time in her life, when she needed help the most? Why didn’t you help save her life?”
In an effort to stem the tide of deaths like Werstler’s, counties across Pennsylvania have turned to the state’s “Drug Delivery Resulting in Death” law to prosecute not only those who sold drugs that led to fatal overdoses but also fellow users who might have shared narcotics that led to a deadly outcome.
Prosecutors have cited them as an effective deterrent, while critics have questioned whether they unintentionally push drug users into more risky behavior, such as using drugs alone or failing to call authorities for help out of fear of harsher punishments.
Yet unlike those state cases, in which sentences can range from months to 40 years, Semler was charged and convicted in December under a similar federal statute that carries a 20-year mandatory minimum.
Pratter acknowledged Wednesday that her sentencing decision was bound in part by that congressional mandate. But even then, she said, Semler did little to help her case.
The judge accused her of not taking the proceedings seriously until she was convicted and of flouting the conditions of her bail by posting photos of herself to Facebook lounging by a pool with friends and on a Black Friday trip to the King of Prussia Mall when she was supposed to be under house arrest.
“Teachers don’t give grades, and judges don’t give sentences,” Pratter said. “In almost every case, the sentence is what the person has earned.”
Prosecutors and a jury also concluded that Semler ultimately was to blame for causing Werstler’s death.
She had lent Werstler the money to buy heroin on May 9, 2014. She knew the drug dealer and carried out the transaction. She also provided the needle and directed Werstler to the KFC at 61st Street and Lancaster Avenue, where the women and Semler’s younger sister, Sarah, shot up together.
And when Werstler began to overdose, Semler cleaned up the scene and left without a word.
“This defendant acted with complete disregard for another human life, the life of a supposed friend,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams.
Still, her lawyer, S. Philip Steinberg, said, that is only part of Semler’s story.
Like Werstler, of East Goshen Township, Chester County, Semler became addicted to heroin as an early teen and at the height of her addiction was using as many as eight to 10 bags of heroin a day.
But since achieving sobriety a year after her friend’s death, Semler has committed herself to helping others kick their addictions. Until she was taken into custody after her conviction last year, Semler served as a sponsor to several other young women and was working in the marketing department of a private drug rehab center in New Jersey.
“I’ve seen a change in Emma before this case began,” said Anne McCarty, Semler’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. “At first she was angry, and it was, ‘How dare there be blame [for Werstler’s death]?’ But within two or three conversations it became, “I can’t believe I was there, and now I can’t say sorry to Jennifer.’”
Ultimately, said Semler’s aunt Susan Layton, the case has left loss and grief all around.
“A permanent loss” for the Werstlers, she said, and a “temporary loss” for the Semler family, who one day will see Emma again.
For her own part, Semler sat with her eyes cast downward throughout much of the hearing — a posture that prompted the judge to question the extent of her remorse. In addition to her prison term, Semler was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine and serve six years’ probation upon her release.
As Semler was led from the courtroom in handcuffs, Werstler’s mother said that five years after her daughter’s death, she felt a sense of release.
Still, she added, this was no victory for Jenny.
“There is no winning family. [Semler’s] family is going to be devastated,” she said. “But they can at least visit her.”