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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Ethan Brown, Author of “Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice”

Snitch cover

Who’s a snitch? In the context of the federal criminal justice system and this discussion, it’s not the unwitting citizen who witnesses a crime and identifies the perpetrator for the police. Nor is it the victim of a physical crime who identifies and testifies against her assailant. Rather, a snitch is a participant in criminal activity who rats out other alleged wrongdoers in exchange for immunity from prosecution or a lighter sentence. Remember the phrase, "Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time?" Snitches can’t or won’t do their time.

Snitch (cooperators’) testimony is purchased testimony. It is testimony the Government purchases with promises of leniency. The problem is that freedom is a commodity far more precious than money and the incentive to lie or embellish is enormous. In my view, the practice of rewarding snitches for testimony has made our criminal justice system morally bankrupt.

In drug cases, mandatory minimum sentences range from 5, 10 to 20 years, depending on the type and quantity of drugs involved and whether the offender has a prior felony drug conviction. In many instances, the maximum sentence allowed is a life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. Too often, the only way out from these draconian sentences is to snitch.

All the cooperator has to do is tell the truth about misdeeds of others — others whom the Government has an interest in convicting. The truth, of course, has to fit the Government’s theory or version of the truth. A few defendants, like Susan McDougal in the Whitewater case, refuse to play along. Many more agree, even if the Government’s truth varies from their own version of events. In the federal system, the culprit is Section 5k1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

Upon motion of the government stating that the defendant has provided substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense, the court may depart from the guidelines.

Ethan Brown has written a terrific book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice, exposing the danger and harm caused by the "5k" system. Using real-life cases from Baltimore, New York and Richmond, he demonstrates how "real investigative work has been replaced by false testimony from incentivized witnesses" and resulted in wrongful convictions and the premature release of dangerous snitches back to the community, where they may continue to commit horrible crimes.

Ethan is with us today in the comments. We’re hoping for a lively discussion. So ask questions and tell us what you think. I’ll be here to moderate and chime in.

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Jeralyn Merritt

Jeralyn Merritt

Jeralyn is a Denver-based criminal defense attorney. She writes daily at TalkLeft: the Politics of Crime .