The U.S. Attorney’s Office is charging the man who allegedly sold actor Michael K. Williams a deadly dose of fentanyl last September with causing his death – an offense that could land him in prison for life. But as prosecutors increasingly use this aggressive tool to stem the tide of overdose deaths, politicians, public health experts, and victims’ families disagree about whether dealing deadly drugs should have the same legal consequences as homicide.

Williams’ alleged dealer, Irvin “Green Eyes” Cartagena, 39, was arrested Tuesday in Puerto Rico on conspiracy drug charges for selling fentanyl-based heroin that resulted in Williams’ death. The so-called “death resulting” or “drug-induced homicide” charge — created by Congress in 1986 during the war on drugs but increasingly used in recent years — carries a sentence of 20 years to life, and has become a tool that prosecutors in New York and nationwide use in selected cases.

There have been at least 128 people in New York charged with causing deaths through overdoses, according to an analysis by the Health In Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University. Nationwide, data shows prosecutors have filed most of those charges in the last 13 years, as opioid overdoses reached crisis levels.

Most states, including New Jersey, now also have their own drug-induced homicide laws. A bill to establish such a provision in New York was first introduced in 2015, but it’s languishing in the state legislature.

Such laws don’t require prosecutors to prove that the perpetrator intended to harm the victim who was supplied the deadly drugs. They’re intended to dissuade people from selling or giving drugs to others.

Some public health experts argue that deterrence through criminalization doesn’t work, since it unfairly targets people of color and those who sell to support their own habits. The threat of life in prison also has an adversely chilling effect, they argue: Since people who overdose are likely to be around others who are using, those users might be reluctant to call 911 due to fear of arrest.

“Williams’ death is being commemorated by ratcheting up and feeding the war on drugs and deploying these failed approaches,” said Leo Beletsky, a law and health sciences professor who studies the issue through the Health In Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University. “And it's a travesty. It's a desecration of his life and career.”

But some loved ones of victims say the advent of fentanyl has changed everything. It’s an extremely potent synthetic opioid added to heroin and other drugs, and the driving force behind skyrocketing overdose deaths.

In New York City, overdose deaths increased an estimated 35.2% in the 12-month period that ended in June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The count is not final, but the agency predicts there will have been 2,475 victims during that year-long period — about five times the number of people killed in homicides in the city in 2021. And fentanyl is driving these deaths — the substance was involved in 77% of deaths in 2020, according to the city.

“There's still a lot of people that don't quite understand fentanyl,” said Matt Capelouto, president of, a nonprofit that advocates for more states to enact laws to prosecute dealers for killing people through overdoses. “We're talking about people who are selling a poison, which is killing a shocking, alarming amount of people.”

Capelouto, of Temecula, Ca., lost his 20-year-old daughter two years ago after she took a pill that she thought was oxycodone but was actually fentanyl. His daughter’s drug dealer was finally arrested last December and he is now being charged with distributing a drug that resulted in death. Capelouto says he doesn’t think of his daughter’s death, or Williams’, as overdoses. “They were poisoned,” he said. “And hence being a poisoning, that’s a homicide.”

In bringing the case against Cartagena, the actor’s alleged dealer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said the country is facing a “public health crisis.”

“It has to stop,” he said in a statement. “Deadly opioids like fentanyl and heroin don’t care about who you are or what you’ve accomplished. They just feed addiction and lead to tragedy.”

Last September, Williams, who had been open about his struggles with drug addiction, purchased baggies of drugs marked with the label “AAA Insurance” in a hand-to-hand transaction and exchanged phone numbers with Cartagena, according to surveillance video reviewed by investigators. An NYPD detective on the case said that during the interaction Cartagena put his hand on Williams’s shoulder, “which I believe indicated that the individual recognized Williams,” according to the complaint.

Williams then returned to his Brooklyn apartment, where he snorted the drug cocktail that was later found to contain fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine, according to court papers. He was found dead the next day wearing the same track suit he had on when he made the buy.

Williams, who was 54 at the time of his death, was an actor best known for his performance as Omar Little on “The Wire,” widely considered one of the greatest television shows of all time. The character was a stick-up man who robbed drug dealers and was feared on the streets of Baltimore. But Little also brought complexity to traditional Hollywood portrayals of masculinity as a gay man who tenderly cared for his grandmother.

The creator of “The Wire,” David Simon, tweeted after the drug-induced homicide charges were filed this week that Williams is not “honored or properly remembered by more incarceration in his name.” Simon, who portrayed the war on drugs as absurd and deadly in “The Wire,” added: “Knowing him and his thoughts, I think he would be appalled at this. End the goddam drug war.”

Beletsky, of the Health In Justice Action Lab, said the cost of investigations into such death-resulting cases is exorbitant. Indeed NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said that detectives in Brooklyn “lived this case, never relenting in their investigation until they could bring a measure of justice to Michael K. Williams and his family.” She said NYPD investigators traveled to Puerto Rico for the case. License-plate readers, surveillance videos, and an examination of Williams’ cell phone were used by NYPD detectives to identify Williams’ whereabouts.

Williams’ celebrity likely played a role in the extent of the investigation and the severity of the charges levied, Beletsky said. With about 100,000 overdose deaths a year, “Prosecutors pick and choose whose death they're going to charge in this way.” And based on his analysis of available data on drug-induced homicide arrests, he said that means many cases involve a white victim and a non-white dealer. “And we think that’s really kind of an illustration of how this maps out onto other drug war tactics which disproportionately targeted Black and brown people,” Beletsky said.

While federal resources for such investigations have increased, public health experts say the money could be better used by increasing access to fentanyl test trips, Narcan to stop overdoses, safe injection sites, and treatment.

But given that a tiny percentage of overdose deaths are prosecuted with the kind of charge that Williams’ dealer is facing, Capelouto said it needs to be ratcheted up and used more often. “We’re clearly not locking up enough people to see a difference,” he said.

One thing is clear: Williams’ death alone didn’t deter his dealers. Even after the actor’s death, the U.S. Attorney said the defendants continued to sell the same drug in Brooklyn and Manhattan prior to their arrests this week.