Court Records

Marc Henry Johnson '86, a television producer, was sentenced last week to a year in prison for his role in a former Weill Medical College professor's death.

August 22, 2017

Cornell Alumnus, HBO Producer Sent to Prison for Role in Doctor’s Death

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A Cornell graduate and award-winning television producer will be in prison shortly after the premiere of his latest project after he admitted to helping his cocaine dealer carry a dying woman out of the dealer’s Manhattan apartment before calling for help.

A judge last week sentenced Marc Henry Johnson ’86 to a year in prison after Johnson pleaded guilty to helping his dealer, James “Pepsi” Holder, carry a former Weill Cornell Medical College professor out of the dealer’s Manhattan apartment and leaving the scene shortly before the former professor was pronounced dead.

In the early hours of Oct. 4, 2015 — one day before HBO was to begin filming “The Deuce,” which Johnson helped create — the Cornell alumnus and Dr. Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny, the former professor of dermatology, took a cab from a bar to Johnson’s cocaine dealer in the Chelsea neighborhood.

After the three used cocaine in the dealer’s Chelsea apartment, Johnson fell asleep and awoke to find Cerveny in distress and Holder, the dealer, ordering the pair out of his apartment, Johnson’s attorneys said.

Johnson and Holder grabbed the unconscious dermatologist’s arms and legs carried her downstairs to the lobby of the building. It took about a minute for the two to awkwardly carry Cerveny to the lobby, said Michael Wilson, a New York Times reporter who saw security footage of the incident when it was shown to reporters in Manhattan Federal Court.

Once there, the dealer fled and Johnson attempted to resuscitate the dermatologist and called one of her friends before dialing 911.

“A woman’s passed out,” Johnson told the dispatcher between heavy breaths, according to a recording of the 911 call released by the court. When emergency personnel arrived, Johnson directed them to the woman and headed home, his attorneys said.

Cerveny was pronounced dead later that morning from acute alcohol and cocaine intoxication, prosecutors said.

Johnson’s removal of Cerveny from the dealer’s apartment and the minutes-long delay before calling 911 led to the federal charges, which stained Johnson’s reputation and led studios to distance themselves from the producer, his attorneys said. PBS nixed a contract with Johnson to produce a documentary and HBO kept him off the set of “The Deuce,” the lawyers said.

When Judge Jesse Furman sentenced Johnson to 366 days in prison last week, the producer slumped down in his seat and his lawyers had to ask the judge for a moment so Johnson could collect himself and confirm that he understood the sentence, Wilson, the Times reporter, told The Sun.

“He looked very, very, shell-shocked,” Wilson said. “He looked devastated.”

More than three decades before what Johnson, 53, said was the “most horrendous” day of his life, he transferred from the College of Engineering to the College of Arts and Sciences in his junior year to pursue theater and film at Cornell. He took part in several Cornell Theatre productions and played lacrosse on a second-tier varsity squad, according to a 1986 Cornell yearbook.

In letters to the court, at least eight friends from Johnson’s college days urged the judge to be lenient, saying Johnson had been part of a tight-knit group of friends and looked out for his peers. One former roommate, Gary Holtzer ’86, said Johnson is “as kind-hearted and sensitive a friend as you could want.”

The 1986 Cornellian Yearbook

Johnson graduated from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1986 and pursued television production

Henry Louis Gates, the famous professor and director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, said that both Johnson and his future wife had taken a class with him at Cornell in the mid-1980s and noted the producer’s “recognizable voice on campus.”

“While 2015, the year that engulfed Marc’s life in tragedy, is the one that will always ask questions,” Gates wrote in a letter to the court, “the years in which I joyfully observed him as a university student in Ithaca were the years, in which, I believe, provided the answers: to Marc’s character, his creativity, and his generous, open, ever-seeking soul.”

Johnson “firmly identifies with his African American heritage,” his attorneys said, and his body of work has “a socially conscious focus that translated into professional success.” Johnson won a Peabody Award for his work producing “A Huey P. Newton Story,” a Spike Lee dramatization, and also worked on the set of Lee’s iconic 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing.”

Days before the tragic moments in the Chelsea building lobby, Johnson took a break from working on a PBS documentary to focus on “The Deuce,” which chronicles the sex industry in 1970s New York and is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 10, less than three weeks before Johnson must begin his incarceration in federal prison.

Johnson’s lawyers argued that he should be sentenced to probation only, claiming that Cerveny had consumed “dangerously large quantities of cocaine” by the time Johnson arrived at the bar. Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Johnson to about two years. In the end, Judge Furman split the difference, handing him just over 12 months in federal prison and two years of post-release supervision.

Johnson '86 won a Peabody Award in 2001 for his work producing A Huey P. Newton Story, a dramatization directed by Spike Lee

Court Records

Johnson ’86 won a Peabody Award in 2001 for his work producing A Huey P. Newton Story, a dramatization directed by Spike Lee

“For all we know she could have been saved,” Furman said at the sentencing, according to The New York Post. “Had you not taken to protect the drug operation and your own reputation … things may have turned out differently.”

“Your conduct may well have resulted in the death of [Cerveny],” the judge added, according to The Post.

Johnson said he “intentionally helped Mr. Holder carry [Cerveny] down the stairs to the lobby” in March when he pled guilty. “This was wrong. Carrying [Cerveny] down the stairs had the effect of delaying Mr. Holder’s arrest by allowing him to walk away and preventing EMS or the police from entering his apartment.”

Holder, the dealer known as “Pepsi,” was sentenced to five years in prison.

Cerveny, a 38-year-old mother of three, was an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in 2009, according to a wedding announcement from that year. Weill Cornell Medicine spokesperson Sarah Smith declined to confirm that announcement, saying she was “unable to provide information on any employee, current or former” because of privacy concerns.

Cerveny won the 1995 Distinguished Young Women pageant, using the prize money to fund her undergraduate study at Duke University, according to USA Today. The doctor also worked as a private dermatologist in New York City, The New York Post reported.