by Paul Wright
As we enter PLN’s 33rd year ofpublishing, the most obvious thing about reporting on the American gulag all these years is how much it is really an ongoing story. Unlike fiction novels, movies or plays, which have a beginning, middle and end of the story, much of what we cover and report in Prison Legal News is very much an ongoing story with many chapters that play out for many years or even decades. In some cases, all that changes are the dates and some of the individual characters, almost like a movie sequel: similar plot even if there are some minor differences among the cast.
This month’s cover story on snitches and corruption in the Orange County jails in California is no exception. We first started reporting on it exactly 14 years ago in the February 2009 issue of PLN. We have had updates and new chapters along the way since then, including now-Vice President Kamala Harris’ (D) imploding “investigation” into snitches at the Orange County jails when she was the attorney general for California.
Not much has changed in this time period. Some new snitches arrived, some sheriff’s staff and prosecutors got promoted or retired, with new ones hired, but it remained business as usual in terms of using informants to convict defendants who may be factually innocent of the charges against them, or for whom the state at least had minimal evidence of guilt.
What is interesting about the Orange County snitch scandal, besides the fact that it has even become a public scandal thanks to the hard work of many criminal defense attorneys and others in Orange County, is how rare and exceptional it is for a scandal to happen at all. Sadly, Orange County is not the only jurisdiction to use informants to frame and entrap the innocent and guilty alike. It is truly a national phenomenon, yet one that only rarely makes the news. Neighboring Los Angeles County has long been synonymous with jailhouse snitches, yet rarely makes the news, at least not since 60 Minutes ran a story decades ago on snitch extraordinaire Leslie Vernon White, who fabricated confessions by other prisoners to escape punishment for his own crimes and misdeeds.
It is a sad commentary that so much “police work” in this country relies on informants to entrap people and fabricate evidence against them, using police misconduct to coerce confessions, conduct unlawful searches, suborn perjury and otherwise fabricate evidence. Then of course there are the prosecutors who use the snitches and police to secure shaky convictions and the judges who ratify them.
The recent news coverage of Brittney Griner, the American basketball player who was charged and convicted in Russia after being caught with drugs in her luggage when entering the Moscow airport, made much of the fact that Russian criminal courts claim a 98% conviction rate. I thought that was pretty low compared to American criminal courts. As it turns out, I was right, and America is indeed better than Russia when it comes to securing criminal convictions. In 2018, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts recorded 79,704 defendants who were charged with a federal crime and of those, 320 went to trial and won an acquittal. Well below 1%.
Yet most American news media find nothing alarming about the rates of criminal convictions in American courts (nor the number of people arrested and convicted for smuggling drugs into the U.S. via airports). Nor do they ask how many Orange counties there are, with police and prosecutorial misconduct so embedded in the court system that a fair trial is impossible?
Sometime during the month of February, the Human Rights Defense Center will be relocating to a new office, as we have outgrown our current office. Hopefully it does not affect subscriptions or book orders, as the delays caused by moving should be minimal. Our mailing address and contact information will remain the same. The December issue of PLN was mailed later than usual because our long-time printer had staffing shortages causing delays after we sent the proofs for the magazine.
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