"When you go to an overdose death, treat it like a crime scene. Don't treat it like an accident," said Kerry Harvey, the U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky. He has started prosecuting people who sold both prescription opiates and heroin under a federal law that prohibits the distribution of illicit substances and allows additional penalties for a death.
Technology is another boon to such cases. Prosecutors said cellphones have been instrumental in helping gather enough evidence because people leave behind a trail of text messages and calls.
"People text their dealer and say, 'Get me some horse,'" said Hennepin County, Minn., attorney Mike Freeman, using slang for heroin. "They text back and say, 'Meet me at McDonald's, I have some really good horse.' The guy is dead three hours later."
Kathleen Bickers, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oregon, has prosecuted more than 40 cases under the federal statute. The goal, she said, is to take down as many rings on the heroin supply chain ladder as possible.
"We don't stop at street-level dealers. We go up as many levels as we can" after a fatal overdose, Bickers said.
Prosecutors concede such charges are often difficult to prove, and it can be hard to trace drugs back to a specific dealer. People often overdose alone, said Bergen County, N.J., prosecutor John Molinelli, and it's hard to trace the drugs "because the person who can tell you is dead," he said.
Molinelli charged two people under the New Jersey law in June and said he plans to use it more because of changes in technology and the high number of overdoses in the county. During the first half of 2013, 58 people died of overdoses in Bergen County, the same number as for all of 2012. The laws, he said, send a message to dealers that they can face more severe charges.
Some wonder whether the enforcement efforts are actually going to curtail drug sales. Douglas Husak, a lawyer and professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, said he doesn't think the stricter enforcement will stop people from dealing heroin.
"Heroin distributors are not murderers, and they're not murderers when their customers die from an overdose," said Husak, who has called for decriminalizing drugs.
In New Jersey, officials say heroin has become a scourge across the entire state, prompting Gov. Chris Christie to create a task force on heroin and other opiates. Forty-five percent of the primary drug treatment admissions in 2011 were for heroin, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Mariann Farino's son Raymond died of a heroin overdose in January. Coronato's office charged the man they say sold her son heroin in June.
"Did he stick the needle in my son's arm? No. Did he sell him stuff that was crazy? Yes," she said. "Should he be held partially responsible? Yes."