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Michael Williams likely wouldn't have wanted the dealer linked to his death in prison

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The late actor Michael K. Williams was best known for playing a Robin Hood-esque anti-hero on the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." You might remember the signature whistle of the character Omar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little, whistling).

CHANG: Williams died of an overdose in 2021, and the man who sold him the drugs will be sentenced in federal court this week in New York City. Some of Williams' friends say sending the dealers to prison goes against what Williams stood for, both on and off the screen. Samantha Max of member station WNYC reports.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: On "The Wire," Omar Little stole from drug dealers to survive on the streets of West Baltimore. Here's an attorney struggling to make sense of his behavior in one memorable courtroom scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off...

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Just like you, man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As attorney) ...The culture of drugs. Excuse me. What?

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. Still in the game, though, right?

MAX: In real life, Williams struggled with addiction. He sought help when he was on "The Wire." Williams told WNYC in 2018 that he started using and partying at a young age growing up in Brooklyn.

WILLIAMS: I was at risk. You know, I looked at the mistakes and the bad choices I made in my life. It came from a lack of self-awareness and way too much access to nonsense.

MAX: In September 2021, Williams was found unresponsive in his Brooklyn apartment. Irvin Cartagena was one of four people arrested in connection to the death. Cartagena admitted to selling the actor heroin laced with fentanyl and pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy. These cases are part of a growing strategy to seek lengthy sentences for people who distribute deadly drugs. More than two dozen states now have laws like this. But Maritza Perez Medina with the Drug Policy Alliance says these tough-on-crime approaches don't work.

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: Disrupting illicit supply chains and sending distributors to prison is actually harmful to drug user health.

MAX: Prosecutors have filed more than a thousand of these cases in recent years. On the federal level, the U.S. Attorney's office has also been pursuing harsh penalties for street-level dealers. But Perez Medina says taking away a drug seller can lead users to a different source.

PEREZ MEDINA: And that's when we see them getting exposed to substances that they may not be used to, and that is what can trigger an overdose.

MAX: Off-screen, Williams advocated for criminal justice reform. He co-founded a nonprofit to support vulnerable young people in Brooklyn. He served as the ACLU's ambassador for ending mass incarceration. Several of Williams' friends have asked a judge not to give the dealers lengthy prison sentences. They say he believed in redemption.

CHAD ARRINGTON: Mike was a big proponent man of prison reform, of, you know, making things fair.

MAX: Baltimore rapper Chad Arrington himself spent 16 months in federal prison on wire fraud charges. He says Williams supported him while he was behind bars. Arrington says his mentor would have wanted the men connected to his overdose to take responsibility for their actions.

ARRINGTON: They had to look in the mirror each and every day and know exactly what they did to Michael K. Williams and not just to him - other people in their community.

MAX: But he doesn't believe incarceration is the path to rehabilitation. The only thing prison does, he says, is break you. For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.