On May 29, defendant Emma Semler was sentenced by a federal judge to 21 years in prison after a jury convicted her of distributing heroin to her victim, Jennifer Werstler, causing Werstler’s death.
This case has attracted a significant amount of public attention, in part because it reveals the tragic story of two young people whose lives have been destroyed by opioids — the defendant’s by supplying heroin, and the victim’s by overdosing on it and dying. So too, has there been commentary about the federal prosecution. Some are of the view that charging and convicting Semler with distribution of heroin resulting in death was an inappropriately extreme response to the conduct of two addicts who used heroin together. As a result, the Semler case has sparked broader debate about the opioid crisis and the role the Department of Justice therein.
First — and I cannot emphasize this enough — Semler was not prosecuted with distribution of heroin resulting in death because she used drugs with her friend who died, nor was she prosecuted because she was a drug addict. She was prosecuted because she supplied heroin to Werstler, and then willfully left her to die on the bathroom floor of a busy restaurant.
Emma Semler was as much of a drug distributor as her suppliers. She had a long history of buying drugs and supplying them to other people. In fact, Semler received a discount from her dealer and routinely collected money from individuals who were afraid to travel to Philadelphia to purchase drugs for themselves. She would fill orders as well as have others buy her drugs as payment for her personal drug connection. She operated like a drug dealer because, in fact, she was one.
And even though Werstler considered Semler a “friend,” Semler showed a shocking disregard for Werstler’s well-being. On the day of Werstler’s death, it was Semler who supplied Werstler with everything she needed to get high, including the heroin, the needle, and the money to make the purchases. And after the first hit, it was Semler who chose to give Werstler a second packet of heroin.
Further, Semler knew exactly what was happening as Werstler showed symptoms of overdosing. But instead of calling 911 or calling out for help, Semler decided to clean up the bathroom, hide any evidence of drug use, call her mother for a ride home — and leave Werstler sprawled on the floor to die.
The jury’s unanimous verdict, returned after less than two hours of deliberation, speaks volumes about its assessment of Semler’s culpability. Even the judge who presided over the case assessed Semler’s culpability, commented on Semler’s apparent lack of concern throughout this tragedy for anyone but herself, and imposed a sentence above the 20-year mandatory minimum.
Nonetheless, some critics have claimed that prosecutions like this one will deter other drug users from displaying basic human decency and calling for help if they observe someone overdosing. Of all of the things Semler did that day, the one thing she did not do was call for help. To imply that the consequences of her failure to do so will discourage others from seeking help if presented with the same choice is illogical and inconsistent with the facts of this case. And perhaps more importantly, it simply does not give people enough credit.
I will be the first to acknowledge that there is no simple solution to the horrific opioid crisis that surrounds us. It requires a persistent, multifaceted approach. The primary role of federal law enforcement is to enforce our nation’s drug laws. And, to that end, one critical aspect of the Department of Justice’s strategy is to prosecute people who break the law and cause someone’s death by exploiting that person’s addiction. That is exactly who Emma Semler is. She may not be a physically intimidating figure who sold drugs on an urban street corner, but she was a drug distributor nonetheless.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this case and the community’s interest in it: We must recognize all aspects of these opioid tragedies in order to effectively battle the epidemic. Therefore, despite my disagreement with some of the commentary, I applaud the continued conversation. I ask everyone to keep talking about Emma Semler and Jennifer Werstler and the life-destroying consequences of involvement with opioids. Emma Semler illegally distributed opioids and left another human being to die, and for that she will be spending 21 years in federal prison.
Jennifer Arbittier Williams is first assistant United States attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.