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Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice, by Ethan Brown Public Affairs Publishing, 273 pages, $25.95

Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice, by Ethan Brown Public Affairs Publishing, 273 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by David Preston

“Snitch” – the word is one of the most loaded in the English language. To the law enforcement community it means a bad guy gone good: someone who forsakes the mobster’s code of silence, informs on his confederates and cooperates with the cops. To those on the losing end of the deal, a snitch is a traitor, a backstabber, a villain.

These are the classic interpretations of snitching. However, as Ethan Brown demonstrates in his study of modern snitchery, these notions are now – to borrow a term from former US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales – “quaint.”

Over the last two and one-half decades, testimony from snitches has evolved from being the weapon of last resort in high-profile racketeering and murder cases to being a freely traded commodity in what could be called the trafficking of justice. Informant testimony, both voluntary and coerced, has proliferated in state and federal courtrooms, and prosecutors and cops now rely on it routinely in many cases, and exclusively in some, rewarding snitches liberally with “get-out-jail-free” cards, cash, or even drugs. The result, as Brown’s book demonstrates, is not just the subversion of justice on a grand scale, but the increasing endangerment of the public as well.

Central to the snitching phenomenon is the “5K” motion (a reference to the US Sentencing Guidelines), under which a witness who provides “substantial assistance” to prosecutors can receive time off a sentence or even avoid prosecution altogether. Also central is the American public’s exaggerated fear of crime, especially crime involving drugs or gangsta rap.

With the advent of the Reagan era came draconian new penalties and mandatory sentencing requirements for a wide range of crimes – particularly drug crimes. Faced with the possibility of decades in prison, even for minor offenses, criminal suspects suddenly had a new incentive to cooperate with prosecutors. For their part, prosecutors, with long backlogs of cases and quotas of convictions to deliver, faced an equally compelling need to find people willing to snitch. Unsurprisingly, the people with the fewest scruples about falsely accusing others, or the greatest fear of doing time themselves, began rushing forward, into the waiting arms of prosecutors. The results were predictable.

Brown profiles a handful of illustrative cases – ranging from penny ante inner-city crack dealers to suburban Ecstasy users selling a little product on the side – where prosecutors have used the threat of decades of hard time in prison to coerce suspects into naming names and testifying against alleged kingpins. In theory, this makes sense: use the small fish to catch the big ones. In reality, it has been a disastrous failure. The small fish – many of them actually innocent of the crimes of which they’re accused but unwilling to take their chances with a hostile judge or jury – nearly always cave in, naming names and signing “statements” prepared for them by prosecutors. Usually, the only names these small fish can provide are those of other small fish, not kingpins, and the testimony they provide against others is equally bogus, which is hardly surprising, considering that this testimony has been procured under extreme duress.

In most cases the snitching system doesn’t make the streets any safer; it just results in one innocent person or small-time offender swapping places with another. In some cases, however, a dangerous but “helpful” criminal, one who has nothing to lose by lying, may, as a result of snitching, be set free to commit new, more vicious crimes, as Brown details in his chapter on “Killer Cooperators.”

Among other things, Snitch is a study in human psychology and the lengths to which a person will go to save himself from prison time. In that sense it is a study of the individual under pressure. In the larger sense, though, it is an examination of the justice system itself under pressure, as that system struggles to balance the rights of the accused against the political and social imperatives of the hysterically “tough-on-crime” era in which we live.

Snitch reads variously like a police blotter, a legal textbook, and a tabloid expose. In some cases snitching plays out like drama, in others like farce.
Mostly, though, it’s a tragedy.

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