Daily Report

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Those dirty rats
Journalist shines light on dark corner of the world of wrongful convictions: snitches

by Steve Weinberg

As exonerations based on irrefutable DNA evidence make headlines, it's impossible to deny the broken nature of the criminal justice system. Now comes journalist Ethan Brown with an exposé of an alarming dark corner within the wrongful conviction universe. The exposé is called “Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice.”
A huge percentage of wrongful convictions occur because police and prosecutors—sometimes under intense pressure to make arrests—jump to conclusions about the identity of perpetrators, thus closing off the sustained and reasoned inquiry that would minimize mistakes. Wrongful convictions based on snitch testimony constitute a different kind of error: The police and the prosecutors who cultivate and then use snitches (yes, it is a loaded word, and appropriately so) to obtain convictions often know that the snitches are quite likely lying.
Sometimes a snitch relied upon by police and prosecutors is a longtime associate of the defendant who exaggerates or lies in exchange for a reduced prison sentence, immunity from prosecution or some other personal benefit. In other instances, the snitch never met the defendant until crossing paths with him in a local jail or a prison; the snitch, sometimes on his own initiative, other times encouraged by police or prosecutors, invents a confession by his cellmate. That invention buys the snitch improved conditions while he's incarcerated or a quicker-than-expected release.

Despite realizing they are quite likely hearing fabrications, Brown writes, the police and prosecutors press ahead. Put baldly, the police and prosecutors are not merely exercising hurried and faulty judgment in snitch cases. Instead, they are placing themselves directly inside what they know is a corrupt practice—reliance on informants with histories of pathological lying who would say almost anything to avoid or reduce prison time.

That is a harsh judgment from Brown. Many police and prosecutors reading his book (or this review) will surely cry foul. Their cries will too often be proven insincere upon close examination, however, because Brown's evidence (as well as the evidence I have seen again and again as a journalist) is overwhelming.

The use of snitches is widespread among local district attorneys and U.S. attorneys. Brown's investigation actually minimizes the problem because he decided against reporting on the approximately 2,350 district attorney jurisdictions, which usually conform to county lines. Instead, he focuses solely on federal prosecutions.

Although the decision severely limits his exposé, he should not be faulted for it. Brown's research is built around a thesis—rigid federal sentencing guidelines approved by Congress created such harsh conditions for defendants, especially in drug cases, that snitching became a survival tactic.

Here is Brown, in his own words: “Because the anticrime bills established significant jail time for even low-level drug game players—simple possession of five grams of crack, which weighs about as much as a nickel, could bring five years behind bars—entering into cooperation agreements with federal prosecutors became a near necessity for many defendants.” That cooperation, Brown says, can yield the much-coveted 5K motion from prosecutors. That motion acknowledges “substantial assistance” from defendants and encourages judges to make a “downward departure” from the guidelines.

After explaining the confluence among the hysterical and often futile war on drugs at the federal level, the sentencing laws, the desperation of drug defendants, and the win-at-all-costs attitude of far too many U.S. attorneys, Brown explores the fallout through seven case studies. He demonstrates not only that wrongful convictions are occurring, but also that solid convictions almost never reach the top rung of drug-selling organizations. As a result, federal prosecutors are compromising the criminal justice system for nearly meaningless results.

Furthermore, Brown shows some of the deals cut with snitches are so egregious that murderous psychopaths end up back in society, free to murder again. The case studies that graphically delineate such instances ought to produce nausea in every reader who cares about fair judicial outcomes and public safety.

Brown's book is intended for a general audience. Unfortunately, his writing is often murky, especially in the opening chapters where he tries to explain the legislative and judicial processes that led to such a mess. As a result, a casual reader might feel like giving up before reaching the case studies. That would be a mistake, because the case studies are so vital and because Brown's writing improves after he departs the thicket of policy explanations.

In his final chapter, Brown proposes reforms grounded in common sense. He provides little hope, however, that common sense will prevail.

Recommended Reading
Truth in Justice