“Snitch — Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice” By Ethan Brown
Reviewed by Joe Antol
Historically, drug prosecution has been a local affair. But former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani started to pursue drug cases on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1980s. Federal agents would choose dates, without notice, to arrest and prosecute low-level drug dealers in federal court where they would receive sentences of years, rather than months as would be meted out in state court. While a signature accomplishment for Giuliani, the actual success of the program is suspect and some in law enforcement saw it as nothing more than a grab for headlines, so much so it was nicknamed “Giuliani Day.”
This seminal moment in drug prosecution history is among the facts explored in Ethan Brown’s “Snitch – Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice” (Public Affairs, 288 pages, $25.95). The book describes how the War on Drugs sentencing guidelines have motivated small-time dealers to say anything to get out of prison. The 5K1.1 section of the guidelines allows federal prosecutors to recommend reduced terms for informers who cooperate and testify against their erstwhile companions. While 5K is an invaluable tool for federal prosecutors, it creates enormous incentives for defendants to fabricate evidence given the harsh prison time they face.
During the same period, in response to the ever growing problem of crack cocaine, Congress passed a series of laws mandating severe penalties for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of crack. This led to a 100:1 disparity between crack and the powered form of the drug. Coupled with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which denied defendants bail, those incarcerated are motivated to find a way out of jail, often by lying.
The innocent may or may not be serving time because of false testimony from informers with improper incentives — many of Brown’s sources are defense attorneys — but he makes it clear that the innocent have died. Imette St. Guillen, a 24-year-old graduate student, was abducted, raped and strangled in February 2006 after she left a Soho bar where her alleged attacker, Darryl Littlejohn, was employed as a bouncer.
The media focused on Littlejohn’s criminal past, but not on his history as an informant in Nassau County in the late 1990s. Notwithstanding a long criminal record that included numerous robberies, Littlejohn avoided a 14-year prison sentence by cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Then there are informers that volunteer, without coercion. While working as a paid informant for the NYPD, the unfortunately named Osama Eldawoody exposed plots to bomb the Herald Square subway station and the Brooklyn Bridge. Brown’s claim that the accused were entrapped because the plots were fabricated by Eldawoody is laughable given that guilty verdicts were rendered in both cases.
A cogent criticism of intelligence agencies prior to 9/11 was that they failed to “connect the dots.”
In order to connect the dots, someone has to “collect the dots” as they don’t always willingly present themselves. Informants such as Eldawoody, although flawed, provide information that keeps potential terrorists off the streets.
Along with examples of informers avoiding decades-long prison sentences by fingering their accomplices, Brown shows how some criminals have “played the 5K game” and managed to repeatedly cut deals despite committing violent crimes, with predictably tragic results. He explains how the feds may have botched the murder investigation of rapper Tupac Shakur, describes the infamous “Stop Snitching” movement in inner-city neighborhoods where witnesses refuse to cooperate with the police, and details the hype surrounding the drug Ecstasy. However, it is not clear if he’s spotted a trend or simply cherry picks cases to support his conclusion.
He uses the decline in the retail price of powdered cocaine as evidence that federal prosecutors have been ineffective in the drug war, but bases that assumption on the supply side of pricing, neglecting demand. Has demand slackened due to declining popularity or competition from cheaper, more easily produced drugs such as crystal meth? Have dealers cut prices to grow market share? Brown doesn’t say.
Quoting Paul Krugman, he brings up the specter of rising income inequality leading to increased crime. That impoverished conditions in the inner city breed crime is nothing new, but to contend that because a lucky few are wealthy is the root cause smells suspiciously of a left-wing agenda, not a valid reason for reigning in the use of informants. Brown’s argument is further weakened by the ever declining crime rate and the ever increasing income disparity in Manhattan, which has the highest ratio of rich to poor in the United States, but only 65 homicides in 2007, a 90-percent decrease in the past 30 years.
Overall, “Snitch” is a fascinating expose on the world of federal criminal prosecution that may give the reader pause when on jury duty, but in the end, not fully persuasive.