Examining the charges against four men connected to actor Michael K. Williams’ death.
by Christopher Dale
Twenty years to life.
That’s how much prison time 39-year-old Irvin Cartagena faces for allegedly causing the death of acclaimed actor Michael K. Williams on Sept. 5, 2021. Williams died of a fentanyl overdose and Cartagena was caught on surveillance camera handing drugs to him the day prior.
The actor was found dead by his family in his Brooklyn penthouse, wearing the same clothes he donned in the video.
When someone of Williams’ fame dies, it makes headlines far and wide.
This was not some anonymous addict dying. As the evidence shows, they knew damn well who Williams was, that he was dead of a drug overdose, and that they were almost certainly his final source.
The culprits had clear evidence their product was potentially lethal given the widely reported news of Williams’ death. So it’s reasonable to argue that the circumstances of this case warrant stiffer sentences, above and beyond what a typical street dealer would face.
But… 20-40 years?
Are street-level drug dealers deserving of the same penalties as serial killers?
The Flip Side of Celebrity Sentencing
Before diving further into speculative sentencing, let’s solidify the facts of this particular case – because both Williams’ fame and the defendants rights guilt play a factor.
First, let’s not mistake questioning prosecutor-driven penalties with street-level law enforcement. It’s a terrific thing that these scumbags are off the corner, and the New York City Police Department conducted diligent detective work to make it happen. In fact, their efforts building the case began well before Williams’ death, and have been aptly compared to a sting worthy of The Wire, the actor’s best-known role. Per the Associated Press:
For months, a paid informant working for the NYPD had been making controlled buys of heroin on the same block where Williams purchased his drugs. An undercover police officer made one buy just days before the actor copped his fatal dose, court papers said. The vials of drugs found with Williams when his body was discovered on Sept. 6 bore the same label, “AAA Insurance,” as the vials purchased by the officer.
The day after the actor’s death, the NYPD’s informant went back to buy more drugs from the same group, recording a conversation in which some members of the crew talked about Williams’ overdose
The NYPD not only had the suspects on camera selling to Williams, but also an audio recording of them admitting they were aware of the actor’s death just a day after it was reported. This led directly to their eventual arrest – solid work from a much-maligned police department.
From there it’s the prosecutors’ case. And though Cartagena and his crew certainly earned harsher-than-average penalties for their alleged crimes – again, they had evidence someone had died using their product, and continued to peddle the poison anyway – Williams’ celebrity is likely being used against them in other ways.
Specifically, when a famous person dies amid national headlines, prosecutors fear public backlash should the charges and penalties be anything less than very severe. Judges capable of sentencing discretion face similar pressures. As much as anything, that’s how four street-level drug dealers – including three who didn’t even make the handoff – end up facing the possibility of life behind bars.
When the Punishment Doesn’t Fit – or Deter – the Crime
From a sentencing standpoint, the 20-year minimum faced by Cartagena – and the 40-year maximum faced by his cohorts – most closely resembles murder. In states without the death penalty (including New York), murder generally carries a life sentence defined as about 30 years.
SECOND-degree manslaughter carries a minimum prison term of a scant 1-3 years, and a maximum of 5-15 years – an intentional broadness that gives prosecutors and judges circumstantial discretion. And it is here where we find a legal definition strikingly similar to the four dealers’ alleged crimes:
“Second degree manslaughter happens when the suspect continues with a reckless act that they knew they were committing, and they consciously disregarded the potentially fatal risks to the victim that a reasonable person would not ignore. Even though this crime lacks ‘overt’ intent on the part of the suspect, conviction relies on the prosecution’s being able to convince the jury that the suspect was legally aware that his or her actions could cause serious or fatal injury to the victim.”
Reading this, a strong argument can be made that all four defendants in the Michael K. Williams case, and Cartagena especially, are facing punishments above and beyond the description of a charge exceptionally similar to theirs.
Of course, it’s also understandable to contend that narcotics – especially the uniquely lethal fentanyl, which is driving America’s emergency-level drug death epidemic – complicates this case. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, and it seems reasonable to argue that prosecutors should make examples out of dealers whose products are laced with it.
However reasonable this assertion, the facts don’t back it up. There is, simply, no evidence that harsher laws and stiffer fines dissuade drug dealing and diminish overdose deaths.
Per experts, history and evidence support that neither the death penalty nor harsher sentences reduce drug trafficking or overdoses.
It’s clear that the four dealers involved in this case knew full well they were peddling poisonous product. And per the NYPD audio recording, they were well aware of his widely publicized death by overdose. Regardless, they kept selling the same tainted drugs.
Considering this, it rings true that they deserve harsher sentences than run-of-the-mill drug dealers, who are less likely to learn of a customer’s overdose death.
This case should not be seen as precedent-setting. The idea that a street-level drug dealer should receive the same amount of prison time as a murderer is justice meted out disproportionately.
Even with the Williams case – where the dealers knew their product was particularly dangerous – their actions don’t meet the level of a murderer, or even someone guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Part of this is the free will of the “victim.”
Murder and manslaughter victims are not responsible, at all, for the harm inflicted upon them. On the other hand, those purchasing illicit narcotics are responsible for their choices.
In short, there’s just too many variables here to throw a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence at a street-level drug dealer, even one with priors like Cartagena.
The Michael K. Williams case reeks of prosecutors showing how tough they can be when confronted with a high-profile death. Remove the celebrity from the equation, and both the case and the sentencing look exceedingly different. Lock them up, yes, but throwing away the key is unfairly adding to America’s world-leading per capita imprisonment problem.