Black Man Sentenced to 124 Years for Selling Fentanyl That Led to Overdose

The sentence is an “absurd” example of how Black people continue to be punished more harshly in the war on drugs, experts and users said. 

Apr 5 2022, 12:00pm

In an extreme example of a “death by dealer”-style prosecution, a Black man has been sentenced to 124 years in jail for selling fentanyl to a white man who overdosed. 

Judge Dewey Arthur of Mississippi’s Madison County Circuit Court handed down the sentence to Carlos Allen, 33, last week. Allen was convicted of trafficking fentanyl and possessing opioids and amphetamines, according to a press release put out by District Attorney John K. Bramlett, Jr. He sold drugs to Austin Elliott, 24, last year; Elliott then died of an overdose. 

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Speaking to WLBT-TV, Elliott’s parents expressed support for the sentence. 

“Our goal ever since Austin passed away was that Austin would be the last person that Carlos Allen killed. And that happened today,” said Austin’s father, Charles Elliott. Bramlett said the sentence made a “statement” and addressed the fact that “habitual offenders revolve in and out of our justice system.” He told reporters the sentence reflected that Allen knew he was selling fentanyl, a drug that can kill people. 

But drug users and experts told VICE News the sentence is an “absurd” example of how Black people continue to be punished more harshly in the war on drugs. 

In death by dealer or drug-induced homicide cases, dealers and even family members and friends who provide drugs to someone who then dies of an overdose are given sentences on par with murder or manslaughter convictions; in some cases, the drug suppliers are actually charged with murder.

Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University professor of law and health sciences who leads the Health in Justice Lab, said Allen’s sentence is the most extreme he’s heard of in the five years he’s been following these prosecutions. 

“This sentence is obviously absurd,” he said. “These sentences reflect what one would get for an actual homicide… These are not actual homicides, these are accidental deaths.” 

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Beletsky said these cases are more often prosecuted when a Black or brown person sells drugs to a white person that dies. According to the lab, the median sentence given to Black people is 10 years as opposed to 6.5 for white people. 

At least 25 states have specific drug-induced homicide laws, with penalties ranging from a couple of years in prison to the death penalty. If the cases are pursued federally, the mandatory minimum prison sentence is 20 years. 

While these types of laws have been on the books since the 1980s, they’re being invoked much more frequently in the advent of the opioid crisis, according to the Health in Justice Action Lab. Beletsky said the war on drugs has made that crisis worse, by pushing traffickers to make more potent drugs like fentanyl, which are easier to produce and smuggle and turn a bigger profit.

Using data compiled from media reports, the Health in Justice Action Lab found that most of the people being targeted by these laws are low-level dealers or friends of the deceased. Beletsky said low-level dealers have no control over what’s in the drugs. 

In response to the case, Danielle Russell, 37, a Phoenix-based harm reduction worker, crafted a letter she’s stored with her other end-of-life documents specifying that if she dies of an overdose, she doesn’t want anyone to be held criminally responsible. 

In the letter, Russell said there is a “false dichotomy” between people who use and sell drugs, and that “we are, more often than not, one and the same.” 

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She said prohibition has led to an “increasingly contaminated and dangerous drug supply.” 

“The only entity I hold responsible for my death in the event of an overdose is the U.S. government,” Russell wrote.  

Russell, an opioid user who is currently on methadone, told VICE News she’s particularly worried that her Black and Latino friends could be punished for her death if they were using drugs together. 

“Being a white person and a PhD student, it would be so easy to weaponize my positionality against people that I use drugs with who are more vulnerable than me,” she said. 

She also pushed back on the framing of dealers as people who are intentionally lacing their drugs and duping customers. 

“There’s this whole white innocence upheld,” she said, noting that drug users are aware that fentanyl has permeated the illicit opioid supply. “Oh this was some innocent person and here’s this evil dope dealer that was feeding their drug habit. That’s not generally the actual relationship.” 

Beletsky said these types of letters don’t have teeth, legally speaking, so they may not affect whether a prosecutor decides to pursue a charge. However, he said they could have symbolic value. 

Beletsky said what is clear is death by dealer prosecutions are not preventing drug deaths. 

A Health in Justice Action Lab report found that overdoses increase by nearly 8 percent following media coverage of drug-induced homicide cases. 

Beletsky said that’s in part because people fear calling 911 if they think they’ll be charged with a serious crime. He said drug-induced homicide cases are counterproductive to Good Samaritan laws, which protect people who seek medical assistance during an overdose. 

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.

Tagged:

Drugs, overdose crisis, Drug-induced homicide

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