Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Pennisi did call 911 en route to the fire station.
BOISE — The cruel irony in the criminal case of Zachary Pennisi, his attorney said at his sentencing Monday, is that if he were using heroin on the day he reported his friend’s overdose, he might have been protected from prosecution, thanks to a recent change in Idaho law.
Prosecutors charged him with three felonies, though, saying he played a role in his friend’s overdose death, because he arranged the purchase of the heroin.
Pennisi was clean the day 26-year-old Megan Mornhinveg overdosed on Aug. 11, 2018, and he had been for three months. He was arrested after driving Mornhinveg to an Eagle fire station, trying to get her an overdose-reversing drug. Even though he was trying to get medical help for someone overdosing on drugs, the new so-called “good Samaritan” law did not grant him immunity from criminal charges, as it is intended to do in some cases.
Pennisi was charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance with conspiracy to deliver, and failure to notify authorities of a death.
On Monday, a judge sentenced him to a rider prison term, with up to 10 years in prison possible if he does not succeed. That punishment, 4th District Court Judge Steven Hippler said, was nothing compared to the guilt he felt certain would follow 26-year-old Pennisi for the rest of his life.
The friendship Pennisi had with Mornhinveg stretched back for about 10 years, and at times had been more romantic than platonic. The two were best friends, Mikela “Mike” French, Pennisi’s attorney, said at his sentencing. They talked almost every day. She lived with the Pennisi family for a time. French described her as the love of Pennisi’s life.
“Zach fell for her,” she said. “He fell for her hard.”
Pennisi kept in touch with her, even as she dated other men or moved out of state. As it turned out, they both began abusing prescription medication, French said, eventually turning to heroin.
By August 2018, though, Pennisi had gained some control over his addiction. He was in Ada County’s drug court, and, French said, was actively trying to help his friends who still used drugs to get into rehabilitation services.
It was around that time when Mornhinveg moved back to the Boise area. She was still using heroin, and she had a plan to get clean, both French and Kendal McDevitt, the case’s prosecutor, said. Nevertheless, she asked Pennisi to use his connections to help her buy drugs. Despite his initial resistance, he agreed, and arranged for two purchases of the drug she would overdose on.
Pennisi felt trapped, French said, because he knew Mornhinveg had other ways she could get heroin if he refused. She had at least one other man she could get heroin from, French said, but she’d told Pennisi before he was “really creepy.”
“Ultimately she had the trump card, which was he knew someone else who didn’t love her and hadn’t loved her for a decade would pick her up,” French said in court.
So Pennisi used his old heroin connections and arranged the sale. On Aug. 11, 2018, he awoke to find Mornhinveg in the throes of overdose. He didn’t call 911 right away, but he did drive her to a fire station about a mile from his parents’ home in Eagle. He called 911 en route. He wanted Narcan, an antidote used by first responders to reverse the effects of the overdose.
Ultimately, though, he was too late, and Mornhinveg died. Attorneys agreed Pennisi was not, at first, honest with first responders about the circumstances surrounding her death.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse in the human experience than knowing that you had a hand in the death of the person you love more than anyone,” French said.
Police arrested Pennisi, questioned him for eight hours, and prosecutors later charged him with three felonies; he pleaded guilty to one — possession of a controlled substance with conspiracy to deliver it.
Some advocates and lawmakers voiced concern in recent years that people would be less likely to seek help for a person overdosing on a drug if they were scared of facing criminal charges.
Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, told the Idaho Press he and Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, heard such stories at an opioid summit the two attended in Meridian. Multiple people told them if Idaho had a “good Samaritan law” — meaning a law preventing the prosecution of those seeking help for a friend in the midst of a drug-induced medical emergency — fewer people would die.
Many other states had such laws — by 2017, Idaho was one of only 10 states without one, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. What’s more, they appeared effective — according to a 2011 analysis by the University of Washington, 88% of opioid users polled said they were more likely to call 911 in the event of an overdose after Washington passed its good Samaritan law in 2010.
So Kingsley and Chew introduced the bill in the Idaho Legislature’s 2018 session. It took some negotiation.
Initially, he said, the bill granted full immunity from prosecution if a person called 911 to get help for someone overdosing.
“We had it at full immunity, and it was the prosecutors’ offices that pushed back and said, ‘No, we can’t give this the way you described,’” Kingsley remembered.
The intent of the legislation was not to protect drug traffickers or other enterprising criminals from prosecution, Kingsley said. Prosecutors were concerned the law might be abused in that way.
“They were like, ‘This just opens up a Pandora’s box for us,’” Kingsley said.
Ultimately, the bill, as it passed in 2018, grants immunity from three crimes for a person “acting in good faith who seeks medical assistance for any person experiencing a drug-related medical emergency.”
Those three crimes are possession of a controlled substance, using or being under the influence of a controlled substance, and using or possession of drug paraphernalia.
“There was a lot of concern and conversation with the attorney general’s office … on how that would be worded,” said Monica Forbes, CEO of Recovery United, who had a hand in writing the bill. “We wanted and needed law enforcement to buy into it.”
Prosecutors, however, did not charge Pennisi with any of those three crimes. French mentioned the new law at Pennisi’s sentencing, however.
“Both Zach and Megan came to heroin through abuse of prescription opioids, and the Idaho Legislature actually responded to that,” French said. “They passed … what they call the Good Samaritan Act. And I think it’s an irony here that had Zach still been using, this case might not have been brought. But the fact that he was clean … he wasn’t charged with use or possession, and so that took him out of the realm of that Good Samaritan Law.”
Forbes said she hadn’t heard anyone saying the law needed to be revised. She didn’t think it would be plausible to expand the guarantees of immunity in the bill.
“We may have taken this about as far as everyone is comfortable with,” she said.
In court, Hippler, the judge, acknowledged Pennisi’s case as a difficult one for him, even though the charges were fairly routine. He did not, however, absolve Pennisi of responsibility. He commented in recovery, people sometimes need to be selfish — Pennisi should have remained strong against Mornhinveg’s requests, the judge said.
“This is a sad, terrible case,” Hippler said. “It is a testament to the destruction that the opioid crisis has caused in our community and the impact of addiction.”
Pennisi himself could hardly speak through his tears at his sentencing. His address to the court was brief, some of it lost in his sobs.
“It’s something I’ll have to atone for, for the rest of my life,” he said. “… I lost my best friend who is someone I cared for and loved dearly.”