Beverly Burrell received a 14-year sentence for selling heroin.
Her ultimate punishment might wind up much worse than that. Burrell was sentenced last month for her role in the overdose deaths of Max Tillitt, 21, and Lucas Ronnei, 20, though three other murder charges against Burrell are still outstanding.
At Burrell's sentencing, Max Tillitt's father and brother both offered victim impact statements for Judge Paul Scoggin to consider. Typically, victim statements are a chance for those wronged by a criminal to convince a judge why an offender should receive the harshest sentence possible.
Stephen and Riley Tillitt, Max's father and brother, went the other way. They sought leniency for Burrell, writing that a long prison sentence would not bring Max back, nor would it cure the many Americans currently addicted to heroin or other opiates.
Riley, a student at Yale, submitted his victim statement in writing, while Stephen, an attorney, read his aloud in court. Parts of Steve Tillitt's reading were recorded by the Star Tribune.
Read more about Max Tillitt’s story here. Below, we’ve pasted in the full statements Steve and Riley Tillitt wrote to the judge.
Stephen Tillitt's letter:
Your honor, I want to tell you about my son Max.
I want to tell you about Max’s struggles with depression and addiction, and then share my thoughts about responsibility for his death and Ms. Burrell’s sentence. Max and I were both born on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 37 years apart.
DeeDee and I had our second son Riley about three years later. Max was a happy, sweet little boy and grew up to be a happy, sweet big boy. He played baseball, basketball and football. As a teenager he became a fitness nut. He played the piano with style and expression, especially his favorite Beethoven sonata Für Elise. Music moved him. He was sensitive and compassionate. He made emotional attachments quickly. He loved to talk with others. He wrote poetry and even wrote a poem for me. Max’s behavior began to change in the fall of his junior year in high school, starting with a concussion in pre-season football practice.
We don’t know all of the whys and wherefores, but Max’s mood changed, school became difficult, and he stopped exercising. Over the rest of his high school days we sought medical and psychological care for Max, and he had periods of real improvement. In the fall of his senior year he was accepted by his first choice of colleges, but by the time he had graduated, he didn’t want to go. He was depressed, and he was using. His and our struggles were just starting.
Max had no appreciation for the miseries he would experience when he first tried heroin. He bitterly regretted it, infecting himself with a deadly disease. He wrote this letter when in detox at Fairview Riverside:
"Hi. My name is Max and I am addicted to heroin. Although I have only been addicted to it for 10 months, it has ruined things for me that had taken my whole life to build, such as who I truly am. I have and always will love my family, but if you look at what I have done to them, it wouldn’t seem like it. I have stolen over $10,000 from my parents, mostly my dad.
I stole and pawned my mom’s jewelry. And worst of all, I have turned my brother who used to be my best friend away from me with my drug use. I have just come off a 10-month dope binge and finally feel close to normal without using. I would honestly rather shoot myself with a gun instead of needing to shoot up to feel only normal again. Throughout the 10-month binge I probably stopped getting high by the second month. Even going from smoking to shooting didn’t get me high.
This shows I didn’t like getting high I was just consumed by the drug. Then he added this note to us: I am so sorry, Mom, Dad and Riley. Your lives would have been a lot easier without me. I promise I will do everything I can to make you guys glad I’m in your life. I just don’t know what to say. I am writing this my last night of detox at Fairview to try to come clean."
Max’s legal struggles and our struggles with the healthcare system are too involved to describe here. I will say that despite the brains, resources and resolve DeeDee and I devoted, there were barriers we could not overcome.
Right now, DeeDee is a lead plaintiff in a class action suit against United Health Group in Federal Court in California over denial of inpatient care in Max’s last few months of life. It is set for trial on October 16, 2017. We hope it will lower at least one barrier.
Max was in recovery during the summer of 2015. We were so excited to have our old Max back for a while. He was on Vivitrol that really helped him be clean. Those were some happy days during which Max’s son was born. He was so proud and excited to be a dad yet even that wasn’t enough. When I think of Max now I mostly feel joy, but today we are here to consider responsibility for his death. The overdose death of an addict is a complex question.
Max knew of the dangers of heroin use. While his disease crippled his willpower, he did buy the drug from Ms. Burrell, and he did put it in his own body. While he didn’t expect to die two years ago this past Tuesday, he put himself at risk. Riley writes about the inability of our country’s legal and healthcare systems to even slow down the explosive growth of opiate overdose deaths. I, too, think our country has placed too much emphasis on controlling supply, and too little on controlling demand through more and better education and treatment.
Yet, I deplore those who profit from the misery of addicts and their families. They should be stopped. Ms. Burrell must have known that the goods sold to her customers were dangerous. She must have known that her customers were destroying their lives with what she exchanged with them for their money. She needed to be stopped and thankfully was by law enforcement and the prosecution.
It saddens me when I look at Ms. Burrell, a young African American woman who I am told has been a devoted mother and has been a devoted daughter. I am sure she didn’t have the advantages I had growing up, nor that Max had. It saddens me to think of the disadvantages her children may now face. I have read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colored Blindness. It makes a compelling case against long sentences for drug offenders and how those sentences have had a disparate and damaging effect on black families.
Your honor, with those perspectives, and with the notion that Ms. Burrell is a candidate for reform, here is my thought: A sentence for the death of my son that runs concurrently with whatever sentence she receives for Luke Ronnei’s death is right.
What Max’s mother and I really want is that Ms. Burrell will never sell drugs, dangerous drugs, again.
Riley Tillitt's letter:
Max died just two years ago from the moment I write this. I will never forget receiving the phone call from my parents at 2 AM. I knew what it meant before I even answered. It was the first time I ever lost something important. And the void left behind in Max’s place will remain eternally empty: nothing can ever replace a brother.
To this day, it still makes me cry. It still makes me angry. It makes me angry because Max was stolen from me. He was stolen from our parents. He was stolen from his son. And he was stolen from this world.
But Max was not stolen from this world by Beverly Burrell. Yes, she sold Max his fatal dose. Had she not, Max likely would have lived longer — he may even be with us today. Yet there are a thousand things that, if changed, may have prolonged Max’s life.
Had United Healthcare listened to Max’s doctors and recognized the severity of his opioid use disorder, Max may be with us today. If our society viewed substance use disorder as a disease and not some sort of moral failing that deserves criminal prosecution, Max may be with us today.
Had Max been born in Switzerland, where the government administers heroin-assisted treatment to people with opioid use disorders to eliminate overdoses and allow patients to wean off of heroin at their own pace — and yes, almost all do overcome their addiction with time — Max may well be with us today. There are an infinite number of counterfactual statements that, if true, would have changed Max’s fate. But we’re stuck with our reality.
And in our reality, Ms. Burrell provided the straw that broke the camel’s back. She ought to be punished for placing the straw, but not for breaking the back.
Beyond Max’s reality, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that neither his life nor Ms. Burrell’s trial exist in a vacuum. We live in a country that has proudly waged a War on Drugs for the past four decades. We have spent over a trillion dollars funding militarized drug enforcement operations and mass incarceration — locking up both drug dealers like Ms. Burrell and users like my brother — and to what avail? Opioid overdoses in the United States have now surpassed car fatalities and gun deaths.
Today, more Americans overdose every year than died in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. The harms of mass incarceration are not evenly distributed among our population. People of color are disproportionately targeted for drug related crimes.
While African Americans represent about 12 percent of drug users in the United States, they make up almost 30 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. No matter how angry I am at Ms. Burrell for supplying the dose that killed my brother, I can’t ignore that locking her up for an eternity will change nothing. It won’t stop our opioid epidemic. If anything, it might make it worse.
It’s just economics. With Ms. Burrell off the streets, her clients won’t magically quit using — Max never did. Someone else will — rather, someone else already has filled her place as a drug supplier. It’s likely that overdoses in Minnesota will continue to grow, regardless of how many people we lock up.
Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent economists of the 20th century, explained this over two decades ago. By criminalizing drugs, we give drug cartels a monopoly where violence replaces the rule of law and products are not screened for purity and safety. Drug use doesn’t magically disappear; it is just transferred to an unregulated black market. This has been proved time and time again — it’s the exact reason why Prohibition failed and the mafia gained wealth and power almost a century ago. The same thing is happening today.
So I urge you to give a lenient sentence — not that concurrent, decades-long sentences can even be conceptualized as lenient. I urge this not because I have forgiven Ms. Burrell. And not because it’s what Max would have wanted — although it is, I think, what he would have wanted. But because the only way for us to save other people like Max — which is the ultimate goal here, let us not forget — is to recognize that incarceration is not the answer to a public health crisis. Imprisoning Ms. Burrell for fifty years will not save anybody.
It will just remove any hope of her rehabilitation, cost tax payers over two million dollars — enough to send many people like Max to treatment — and take a mother away from her kids.
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