By Kevin Kelley
Dying is a hard way to get out of appearing in court. But Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Astrab has seen two such instances recently. In both cases, he said, the defendant overdosed on heroin before the case reached a conclusion. The docket for each case ends with the entry “Abated by death,” Astrab said.
Astrab estimates that about three-quarters of all cases in his courtroom these days have some connection to heroin. The judge spoke of the growing heroin epidemic across Northeast Ohio to members of Westlake High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club Oct. 29 in the school’s media center.
Astrab told of a case in which a brother and sister stripped the siding off their grandmother’s house to pay for their heroin habit. In another case Astrab spoke of, a 22-year-old woman, whose parents kicked her out of the house for her heroin use, ended up essentially a prisoner of her drug dealer. He traded her heroin in exchange for entering his prostitution ring, said the judge, who sentenced the dealer to 17 years in jail.
“Every city in Cuyahoga County has a [heroin] problem,” Astrab told the SADD students.
The judge has organized a series of public forums on the heroin problem. The next one takes place at 7 tonight at Westlake Porter Public Library, 27333 Center Ridge Road. Astrab will be joined by a panel of experts, including Joan Papp, a physician at MetroHealth Medical Center; Deborah Naiman, a Cuyahoga County prosecutor; Henry Hilow, a defense attorney; and Jeff Capretto, special agent with the Westshore Enforcement Agency. The discussion will be moderated by Monica Robins, senior health correspondent at WKYC-TV3.
When heroin users appear before him in his courtroom, Astrab attempts to get them into treatment instead of sending them to prison, the judge told students. But the judge added that he can get mean and nasty when he needs to.
Heroin use often begins after an individual has been on prescription pain killers for an accident or injury, Astrab said. Some get hooked on the painkillers. When the prescription runs out, they buy heroin, the judge said, because it’s cheap and easy to find.
A previously upright young person will begin to lie or steal to get the drug, Astrab said.
“It completely fries your brain,” the judge said of heroin.
A sign of trouble, he said, is when a normally clean-cut person begins looking disheveled.
Many heroin users continue taking the drug, even when they want to stop, to avoid going through the symptoms of withdrawal, Astrab said.
“Withdrawal is a nightmare,” the judge said.
Astrab warned students to be careful if they are prescribed painkillers. He also encouraged them and their families to take advantage of programs such as Operation Medicine Cabinet, in which law enforcement agencies collect expired prescription drugs to safely dispose of them.
The judge has scheduled additional forums in the Westshore for Feb. 20 at the Bay Village Branch Library, March 6 at the North Olmsted Branch Library and April 9 at St. Edward High School in Lakewood. All forums will start at 7 p.m.