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July 5, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Every day, Stephanie Morrell’s focus is on justice. Being an assistant prosecuting attorney is not always as dramatic as TV suggests, but Morrell works in and out of Boone County courtrooms to prosecute crime, including Columbia’s rising heroin use.
Morrell, 37, who previously worked at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, has worked on narcotics cases for nearly four years. Although she says she doesn’t have access to hard numbers, she and others at the prosecutor’s office have noticed a rise in heroin cases filed, and two heroin-related deaths were reported in Columbia this year. Morrell points to differences in today’s heroin use: A number of younger people are using, she says, and the heroin itself is purer than its ’80s and ’90s predecessors.
To confront such serious issues, Morrell puts in 45 to 50 hours a week in court or preparing cases. Her work doesn’t stop when she goes home; she often brings her court documents with her. This drive for justice, which Morrell has had since she was a child, gives her the fighting spirit needed to tackle such a serious issue.
Has the rise in heroin cases shown a trend within a specific group?
We’re not really seeing a target population. It really is across the board. I would say that I was a little surprised at the number of younger individuals — 17 to early 20s — that we’re seeing.
Why do you think we’re seeing this trend now in Columbia?
I think we’ve seen a crackdown nationwide on pill abuse — opiate pills and prescription pills — as well as changes to how an individual can obtain them. For instance, Oxycontin is a popular pill to abuse, and prior to some changes, people were able to crush it. They changed the way it was made, and it can’t be crushed anymore. So we’re seeing people moving from that type of abuse to heroin.
Is there a factor specific to Columbia that’s causing this increase?
We are sitting right between St. Louis and Kansas City. Sometimes things, whether they’re good or bad, start in the bigger cities and trickle to us.
Are treatment measures already in place for heroin cases?
I certainly think Columbia has a good treatment community that works together. Once cases such as these reach my desk, there are different considerations, but we have a great drug court program in Columbia. We work really hard with the defense bar and the judges in referring people to get treatment through that program. Treatment has always been something that we have focused on here in the 13th circuit.
What can be done to improve the situation?
Law enforcement, the treatment community and the medical community have come together on this. I have a job to do: to prosecute crimes. At the same time, my job is not only to prosecute but to pursue justice and fairness, whether it’s getting individuals treatment beforehand, getting information out there for the community or pursuing treatment through the criminal justice system. It may very well be that but for this addiction, they wouldn’t be in the criminal justice system.
Are there added difficulties to working high-profile cases such as the Zachariah Peterson trial? Does it add more pressure?
Obviously, there’s more pressure. I don’t know if it’s just because they’re high-profile cases or just that the more complex cases are high profile. But you always approach it in the same way because your job is always the same. As the state and as the prosecutor, we have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the standard. We ask the jury to keep us to that. Whether it’s complex or not, that’s our job.
We see dramatic court scenes in the media. What is it really like?
Doing a trial, no matter what the charge, takes an extensive amount of work. I’m always trying to make sure I’m presenting a case that makes sense to the jury. I need to make sure the truth is out there and that I can explain to the jury what happened to pursue justice. Most of the time, it isn’t like what you see on TV, but that’s not to say there aren’t some exciting moments, outbursts or surprises in trial. But it certainly isn’t what we grew up watching on Law and Order.
Do you think TV and movies affect the juries going into cases?
I think everyone is influenced by what we see on TV. I don’t think we can avoid that. I explain to the jury that that is TV. I ask them to set that aside and decide what’s being presented to them today. I think people can and do know that TV is TV and this is obviously real life.