In some cases, the prosecution won’t offer any kind of plea bargain without what they call a “mandatory debrief,” which means that they want the defendant to talk to the police before they will offer a deal. So far in my short experience, I have not had any prosecutor actually commit to what kind of deal they would give, or even to commit to what kinds of questions they would ask or areas they are interested in. When faced with such wishy-washy promises from people they absolutely can’t trust, most defendants are justifiably wary.
Some are not. The New York Times Magazine ran a piece on the life of Alex White, a professional snitch/informant in Atlanta who actually helped bring down his handlers after they wanted him to cover up their killing a 92-year-old woman in Atlanta. And it’s not a pretty picture.
Although he made a lot of money from setting people up, and was able to deal drugs without fear of arrest, the leader of the police officers who White worked with made sure that he knew who owned him:
“One day Junnier come into my apartment,” White told me, “started throwing stuff around. He say, ‘Where’s the money?’ He knew I’d made some that week. He going through my dresser. He took $4,000. Junnier rough. He very, very rough.” White just accepted the situation. He was not a partner but merely a sub rosa subcontractor, a fact Junnier frequently reminded him of.
Once police officers act like they are above the law in one way, what’s to stop them from doing anything they want? In White’s case, he knew there certainly wasn’t much he could do to protect himself:
“He show me this Jamaican guy,” White said. “Except only his head, on a fence. It had dreadlocks on top and veins below where it got ripped off. Junnier say he fell between buildings during a chase.” White said he felt he was shown the photo as a kind of warning.
It was when the police wanted White to help them cover up their mistaken shooting of a 92-year-old woman that he realized how much danger he was in. The story of how White helped to take down these police officers is certainly interesting — it may have been the first time that white police officers had ever been sent to prison for the death of a black person in Georgia. But what really struck me is how White had to live a life of exile:
“I’ve got to worry about the cops,” he told the paper. “I have to worry about the people on the streets [who sell drugs]. . . . It’s unreal thinking you’re going to die, wondering if you’re going to get framed. . . . I wonder, is my phone tapped? Are they following me? You know how easy it is to be set up when I’m by myself. That’s playing with my mind.”
As a defense lawyer, usually I have to focus on how unreliable informants are, as it pertains to one of my clients. For instance, there is evidence (see p. 3) that snitches are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases – false informant testimony was responsible for 46% of the wrongful convictions identified by the Innocence Project. As Tony Serra says, with snitches, the government is doing what defense attorneys cannot: buying testimony. And often, with co-defendant testimony, the government is buying this testimony with the most important currency that exists: freedom. Serra’s argument that snitching leads to totalitarianism is powerful.
This NY Times Magazine article highlights two other dangers from snitching. First, informants continue to commit crimes free from the fear of arrest. This is an argument made by Alexandra Natapoff and others and this seems to have been White’s initial motivation. But there is another danger, and it should be obvious, there is a danger to the snitch himself (or herself). But the real impact of being an outcast, a person in exile – that was the thing that struck me hardest from this article. It really is a must-read.