Pubdate: June 1999
Source: Playboy Magazine (US)
Copyright: 1999 Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Author: James R. Petersen


Again and again, the same situation occurs.

In 1974 a jury convicted Joseph Green Brown for murder, rape and
robbery. Testifying against Brown was Ronald Floyd. Several months
after the trial, Floyd admitted he had lied at trial. He said he had
testified to avoid prosecution for the murder and to receive a lighter
sentence on another crime. Brown spent 13 years on death row before
being released.

In 1977 Randall Dale Adams was convicted of murdering a police
officer. The prosecution's key evidence against him was the testimony
of David Harris, who claimed to have been with Adams when Adams shot
the officer. In return for Harris' testimony, prosecutors did not
charge him with anything. Adams spent 12 years on death row before
proving his innocence.

In 1983 Anthony Silah Brown was convicted and sentenced to death for
murdering a deliveryman. Another man who had been arrested for the
same murder implicated Brown as an accomplice. This man was given a
deal in return for his testimony. Brown served three years on death
row before he was acquitted of all charges in a retrial. The witness
admitted he had lied.

In 1983 Charles Smith was sentenced to death for murder and robbery.
The prosecution called as a witness a man who admitted to having been
the getaway driver, and who claimed that Smith had committed the
murder. It emerged at a retrial that the witness had testified after
making a deal with the prosecution that allowed him to avoid a murder
charge. Smith spent eight years on death row.

In 1989 Joseph Burrows was convicted of murder and armed robbery. The
prosecution's primary evidence was the testimony of the two men who
also had been charged with the murder. Direct evidence implicated the
two, but by naming an alleged accomplice they escaped the death
penalty. Burrows spent five years on death row before a court reversed
his conviction and dropped all charges.

In each of these cases, and many more that were examined at the
National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, an
innocent man was convicted of murder and sentenced to die on the basis
of testimony by a jailhouse snitch seeking reduced charges or
preferential treatment. Witnesses lied to avoid the death penalty for
crimes they themselves had committed. In each case it took years to
unravel their deceit.

The snitch culture is so embedded in our judicial system that there is
now an entire industry of convicts who buy information from other
criminals or friends on the outside that allows them to rat and cut
off years from their sentences. And prosecutors go along. The snitch
enables them to clear cases and to inflate their conviction rates.

The snitch culture has become a crucial element in the war on drugs.
For the past decade, the federal government has rewarded drug users
and dealers with reduced sentences and cash - so long as they finger
someone else.

In 1986 Congress passed mandatory minimum sentences. Sell enough drugs
and you face five years to life in prison. Two years later, the law
was amended - anyone involved in a drug deal would get the maximum
sentence. There didn't even have to be drugs exchanged. just talking
about the sale of drugs was evidence of conspiracy.

The only way to avoid the maximum was to turn on your confederates (or
almost anyone else you could finger as a drug dealer) and provide
"substantial assistance" to narcotics officers.

Federal prosecutors have an overwhelming conviction rate in such
cases, prompting Nora Callahan, an advocate for drug war prisoners, to
note that "there are thousands of people sitting in prison because
of bought testimony alone, with no other evidence against them. It is
an affront to justice, and to humanity itself. And it's important for
people to remember that this could happen to anyone, to anyone's child."

On January 12 Frontline broadcast a report on the fallout ftom
mandatory minimums. Again and again, the same situation arose:
Big-time dealers would lie to avoid maximum sentences. Drug kingpins
received payouts, lighter sentences or complete freedom for turning in
the little fish -- or in some cases people who were completely
innocent. Only 11 percent of the prisoners serving time for drug
crimes are kingpins; 52 percent are users or low-level street dealers.

The report chronicled the case of Clarence Aaron, a college athlete
who was paid $1500 to drive his cousin and some high school fiiends to
meet people he knew were involved in drugs. Upon arrest, the cousin
and his accomplices - all of whom had criminal records - agreed to
"cooperate" for lighter sentences. The ringleader drew 12 years. Two
accomplices served less than five years. The cousin went free. Aaron
received three life sentences with no chance of parole. He didn't have
anyone to turn in.

Aaron's story is no aberration. Sonya Singleton, 25, was accused by
the feds of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
They offered her a deal and told her that if she would admit to wiring
money to her boyfriend - whom the government claimed was the biggest
drug dealer in Wichita - she would receive less than a year. Singleton
refused, maintaining she was innocent. Indeed, the boyfriend was never
prosecuted. Another drug dealer, seeking to lower his sentence,
testified against Singleton. On the basis of that testimony, she was
convicted and sentenced to 46 months in jail.

Singletor's lawyer, John Wachtel, appealed, using an in teresting
argument: Offering leniency or sentence reduction for the right
testimony violated the federal law against bribery. "Whoever directly
or indirectly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any
person, for or because of the testimony under oath or affirmation
given or to be given by such a person as a witness upon a trial' shall
be fined or imprisoned.

A panel of three judges from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals
agreed with Wachtel: "Promising something of value to secure
truthful testimony is as much prohibited as buying perjured
testimony," it wrote. "If justice is perverted when a criminal
defendant seeks to buy testimony from a witness, it is no less
perverted when the government does so."

For a moment it looked as though prosecutors would have to go out and
investigate cases the old-fashioned way-with physical evidence, motive
and opportunity.

In January, the full Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the
panel's decision, ruling in a 9-3 vote that enforcing the antibribery
law would have made criminals of federal prosecutors. The panel's
ruling, it said, was "patently absurd." For now, prosecutors are free
to go after the big fish, the little fish and also the innocent.
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