The question of whether to snitch or not to snitch to save your own life and if it is constitutionally ethical.
Tony Serra sees the world in justice terms. To right an inherent wrong, he is calling to outright ban the odious practice of “snitching” as a legal option, with its hydra-headed galaxy of informant-based laws that have poisoned the justice system beyond correction.
‘There is a blizzard of informants. Every major drug case involves them as key witnesses. It’s a blight on our judicial system.” -J. Tony Serra
He describes an imbedded system at the heart of every major drug case, that rewards millions of people willing to harm others to advance themselves. Snitching is about a system to harm others to get out of their own case or have a sentence reduced or get paid. They must give up other names for the deal. And so they do. Snitches are key witnesses.
Millions of innocent or ancillary people are ruined by this legal scam. Tony says, “Informant law is morally & practically bad for the individual, bad for society, a junkyard of interlocking laws; there are too many to correct. Ban them. Ban the practice.”
Looking back at the tragic Fred Hampton case, the Black Panther Party member was killed in a hail of police bullets aimed from outside, into his Chicago home. Turns out, a police informant provided the floor plan to Hampton’s house in exchange for his deal.
There is also the stayed Richard Glossip Oklahoma Death Row case. Glossip was convicted of murder solely on the testimony of Justin Sneed who confessed to the murder but claimed Glossip hired him. Sneed avoided the death penalty by implicating Glossip, but Sneed’s daughter wrote the Parole Board, saying, “For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. I feel his conscience is getting to him.” She said she believes Richard is innocent. So do Susan Sarandon, Sister Helen Prejean & many others, advocating for truth, OK Governor Mary Fallin stopped the execution & issued a stay to investigate the chemical mix Glossip is due to be killed with.
Testimony of the murderer’s daughter could save Glossip. Sneed, the snitch, has ruined these lives to save his own, yet if he recants the question is will the state send him to Death Row to be executed as the murderer? It would make him hesitant to tell the truth about Glossip if he must implicate himself.
Would a ban on snitching be an enlightened step toward justice?
“So that’s the first question I ask: Does snitching better a person in any way?”
Serra had churned up the room again. It was apparent that he was hitting below the belt of the comfort level of many people present, the snitch lawyers in particular.
“Let’s look next at the judicial system. Imagine a judicial system in which one side goes out and buys witnesses. It buys one witness here for ten thousand dollars, another one there for twenty thousand, three over here a little cheaper: three for fifteen thousand. And then the other side goes out and buys as many witnesses as it can get, and the witnesses testify for the pay that they get. Would any intelligent, sane person consider that to be a wise way to run a judiciary system? Is that the truth-seeking process at its finest hour?
“Justice has to be a meaningful attribute of every culture. And within that society’s system of justice is the truth-seeking process. And if that process is based on the employment of paid witnesses on both sides, then what does ‘truth’ mean in that civilization? What does ‘justice’ mean? They mean nothing!” The room reverberated with the force of this statement. I looked around to see if anyone would walk out, but no one did. It was as if everyone was held captive on a speeding locomotive.
Serra was accusatory now. “What are we doing, especially in the federal courts? We’re saying that one side can go out and buy witnesses. But if the other side, if we buy witnesses, that’s a fucking crime! We would be prosecuted for it! They buy witnesses, not so crudely as with cash money, although that has occurred. I’ve had cases where they’ve given up to thirty thousand cash in a suitcase. Just like a dope deal. The narcs are giving it to their informant, who’s heading for some unknown federal-witness-protection place. But no! Far more precious than money, they give liberty! ‘We’ll give you ten years of your liberty. We’ll give you twenty years of your liberty,’” he said in a cunning seductive voice. “’You’ll be anonymous and you’ll be completely free! Nobody will know!’
“We’re creating a judicial system that’s predicated on paid informants, who are paid in the currency of liberty, the most precious commodity that exists. And dare we say that that’s justice? Dare we say that that’s the underpinning, the foundation, for a just system? No! It’s an utter disgrace. It’s mockery. It’s ridiculed from any intellectual perspective, by other countries, by history itself.
“Someday historians will look back at these times as a very dark and gloomy period for the American judicial system. And if other judicial systems follow in our footsteps-with witnesses paid to testify with their liberty-then the notion of justice and the notion of freedom certainly will have to go!
“So what I say is, first, the individual who participates in this system is destroyed and second, the judicial system that participates in it is destroyed.”
Serra built up such a force in his oratory that it seemed as if the room was banking like a plane, with its passengers bracing against the disequilibrium.
“The third level is far worse!” he shouted at the audience. “This is really why I’d let my kid become a heroic penal-colony member, why I’d let him die, before I’d let him snitch. Informing destroys the adversary system. You forfeit that which you think you embrace. And it’s already coming to that: The dissident voice is being silenced by the snitch system.
“I’ll get a case and I’ll think, Oh, there’s just one snitch against me. Oh, well, what’s one motherfucking snitch? I can beat one snitch! And by the time I get to trial, there are five snitches. They all rolled! Rolled the top on my client, rolled the bottom on my client, rolled the side on my client. Total oppression!
“Total conquest is what’s in the mind of the government. Total victory. They want to vanquish all opposition. And they don’t give a shit if the snitch is lying or if the snitch is telling the truth! What they want is total control. They’re not lawyers; they’re oppressors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who go into this phony fiction that this is serving an adversarial function. But what happens, ultimately, is that there’s only one side. You who think you’re serving the defense, you serve the prosecution! There won’t be an adversary system. Everyone will submit. Everyone will be vanquished. There will be no two sides. Everyone will turn over.
“And what does that mean? That means totalitarianism! That’s where we’re going. Don’t you see that? The snitch, the informant, the conspiracy concepts, the reverse-sting concept, these are our gutters leading toward totalitarianism: eliminating the adversarial system, eliminating trial by jury, ultimately eliminating us lawyers!
“Don’t you think that when they get through snitching on everyone else, they’re gonna be snitching on us? Aren’t they snitching on us now? Have you had a good open conversation with someone you didn’t know lately? Do you walk around the block, like I do? You’ve got to walk around the damned block! Make sure traffic is noisy, turn up the radio, talk to them over the noise of the fucking radio. They’ve attempted to snitch on me! I’ve had them show up wired in my office carrying a fucking kilo of cocaine, saying, ‘Hey, man, I owe you some bread.’ And right downstairs is the DEA just ready to pounce.
“What do snitch lawyers say about informants? The snitch lawyers’ general rationalization for aiding and abetting frequently perjurious informants is that their first commitment is to the welfare of their client, and the client’s receiving a lenient sentence, or not being prosecuted at all, is the best possible result. Therefore, their representation of an informant is in the highest calling of criminal-defense lawyer.
“This, from my perspective, is a lot of bullshit. Most ‘snitch lawyers’ sub-specialize in the category. A body of law has built up around what manner informants and cooperating witnesses can be legally rewarded, and therefore there’s a bargaining process that occurs in many instances before a snitch will take the stand. The lawyer is negotiating for the optimum that his client can receive, either in terms of a reduced sentence or financial compensation. Therefore, a snitch lawyer doesn’t really practice criminal-defense law. He doesn’t write motions, he doesn’t vigorously cross-examine witnesses, he doesn’t go to jury trial; he’s part of secret negotiations in the bowels of the prosecutor’s office, most of which never fully come to light. However, has he really served his client’s interests well?
“These informants are subject to severe punishment by their peers, both in the prison system and out. Many of them can never go ‘home’ again. Many are estranged from their friends and relatives, even their children. Many psychiatric disorders after becoming informants. Many of them find themselves halfway between their old world and some new legal lifestyle that they cannot readily adapt to. Down deep, law enforcement doesn’t respect them. The prosecutors don’t respect them. They’re vilified by everyone.
“And they should be. They’re guilty of the Judas Syndrome, which is deep-seated in all of humankind. Betrayal has always been severely dealt with by all cultures. So instead of giving ‘life’ to clients who are encouraged to snitch by their lawyers, they’re starting them on a downward cycle of depression and self-destruction. That’s what I have seen and why I don’t participate at any level in creating snitches.
“They hurt themselves; they hurt others. They’re frequently so pressured that they’ll lie, make things up out of whole cloth, bend and extend their narratives to suit law enforcement, so that law enforcement will give what they have promised. It undermines the integrity of the judicial process. It’s an Orwellian spy society that has come into actuality. It is, ultimately, the KGBing of America.
“In fact, it’s worse than buying witnesses with money. Buying witnesses with freedom is the least reliable form of witness testimony. It should be stricken from any judicial system that seeks for truth.
“In every criminal case in our alleged system of justice, some form of spy mentality is now present. There are degrees of informants. We probably have more nomenclature for informants than any other culture. We have citizen informants, confidential informants, confidential reliable informants, unnamed anonymous informants, informants who are percipient, informants who are participatory, informants who are merely eyewitnesses, informants who are co-defendants, informants who precipitate charges by reverse stings. We are confronting informants and cooperating witnesses at every level: preliminary hearings, grand juries, and state and federal jury trials. Our system of justice is permeated by the witness or the provocateur who is paid by government for a role in either revealing or instigating crime. It’s probably the greatest tragedy of my career, in terms of whether or not justice is really pursued and whether truth is a foundation for actualizing justice.
“I vividly recall Tony Serra’s handling of one such informant. The snitch was called to the witness stand. There was nothing remarkable about him, nothing that singled him out. In fact, the most notable thing about him was that one would never suspect him to be different from anyone else. He bore no markings of the Judas goat.
Tony Serra squared off his stance at the podium for his cross-examination. The room went silent. I wondered who present in the spectator section of the courtroom was aware of the vivisection that was about to occur.
“Your plea agreement specifies that you were charged by indictment in a case where you could receive twenty years to life. Is that true?”
The snitch, unthreatened, calmly answered, “Yes.
“Serra continued in his lawyerly manner, “And further, that the twenty years are mandatory. That is, you could not receive one day less than the mandatory twenty years to life. You understood that, didn’t you?
“The snitch responded to these apparently non-threatening questions without hesitation. “Yes.
“A rhythm established, Serra pushed on. “Further, is it a fact that presently you have not been sentenced?
“Again, an affirmative answer came right on cue.
Now Serra augured a little deeper. He lowered his head and fixed a hard stare on the snitch. “And that you will be sentenced at a date subsequent to your testimony in this trial against my client. That’s your understanding, isn’t it?”
This sudden stripping of the covert cover made the snitch squirm in discomfort. He hesitated, breaking the cadence of question and reply. The pause was apparent, the silence awkward. “Yes,” he replied, reluctantly, as though he tripped and was groping to restore his equilibrium.
Serra fed on his malaise and further pinched the nerve. “And that you could receive, under your plea agreement, as low as five years on a downward departure for your cooperation in this case. You understand that your plea agreement allows that, don’t you?”
The snitch feigned a cough and rubbed his nose, buying him nanoseconds of time, while searching for the right words that would save him from glowing with the falsity of his reply. He didn’t find any. He was cornered, and his silence was damning unto itself. “Yes,” he replied.
The spectators shifted in their seats as it became apparent what was occurring here.
Another tweak of the nerve by Serra. “And you understand the nature of the plea agreement: The U.S. Attorney will make the recommendation to the court, whether or not your sentence will be twenty to life, or your sentence will be five years. You understand, by your plea agreement, that you must please the prosecutor in order to get this most favorable recommendation, don’t you?” Serra had him now and was hammering on him, and the only way out was through this damnable house of mirrors that reflected every motive and move of the entire sell-out.
The snitch, realizing his position at the center of this mortifying exposure, answered sheepishly, “Yes.”
Now Serra amped up his volume as he moved in toward a deliberate denuding. “You further understand that the prosecutor wants testimony from you that incriminates my client, don’t you! That’s what he wants; don’t you know that?”
This was like being caught with the murder weapon belching smoke. The snitch seemed to shrink before our eyes as he answered, “Yes.” He’d suddenly become a prisoner of the government and a hostage of J. Tony Serra.
Never breaking his intense beam on the snitch, Serra gouged deeper with his semantic sword. “And that if you don’t give the prosecutor the testimony that he seeks to incriminate my client, you won’t get your reward of fifteen years, or more, off your prison sentence. Isn’t that true?”
The snitch’s face flushed tell-tale red. He squirmed with discomfort in his seat, in search of a position that looked natural. He was being stalked in a minefield of incriminating questions and he simply didn’t know how to proceed. Again, there was an awkward break of the question-answer rhythm and the whole room perceived his distress. Staring downward, he said to the floor, “Well, not exactly. I was told that if I told the truth, that, uh, that’s all I had to do.” He looked up to see if anyone bought it.
Now Serra lightened the tension a bit. “The truth if known only to you and my client, for the most part, in connection with your testimony. Would you agree to that?”
Relieved for the reprieve of intensity, the snitch ably answered, “Yes.”
But Serra’s leniency was only a tease, the cat toying with the mouse, allowing the mouse to think the cat has lost interest; Serra now returned with unmitigating force. “You would do anything not to go to prison for twenty years to life, wouldn’t you?”
The snitch, caught in his own trap, uttered a knowing sigh of doom and responded weakly, “Well, not really, not anything.”
Serra’s voice darkened, turning ominous and overshadowing, as he said, “You don’t want to go to prison for twenty to life, do you? You would die in prison; you’re forty-five years old now.”
The snitch, trying to fake his composure, was coming unraveled, while his eyes shifted nervously from side to side before they fixed on a point on the table where he stabilized himself; he pulled at his collar, as though feeling the tension of an invisible noose around his neck and shifted position in the chair. He shrank before our eyes. Clearing his throat, his voice a little too high, audibly strained, he said, “Yes, it’s obvious I don’t want to go to prison for the rest of my life, “then hurriedly added, “but I’m not lying.”
Serra imposed his next question. “Wouldn’t you lie in order to save yourself …” here Serra paused for dramatic effect, “…fifteen years?”
Gauging the consequences of his answer, the snitch quickly replied, “No.”
Serra flexed his claws into the mouse once again to render just the desired response to imprint upon the memory of the jury. “Isn’t it a fact that you have been lying in order to save yourself fifteen years?”
Again the defensive reactionary reply, “No!”
Serra’s claws pierced deeper. “Isn’t it a fact that you have been pressured to lie to escape a sentence of twenty years to life?”
With eyes dull as dust, the snitch rotely responded, “No.”
Serra turned up the heat. “Isn’t it a fact that the case agent and the U.S. Attorney have explained to you, over and over, your legal position?”
A robotic voice said, “Yes.”
Serra underlined his theme one last time. “And that legal position is that if you don’t get their recommendation based on your testimony today, you’ll get twenty to life. That’s what you have been told on numerous occasions, isn’t it?”
Once again the shudder of cover-up, betrayal, sell-out, deceit surrounded the snitch like a vile aura. And the snitch, succumbed to a posture of defeat, obediently answered, “Yes.”
Serra’s fury cut loose in full Old Testament accusatory volume. “And you’re quite willing to lie to this jury in order to save your own skin, aren’t you?”
A dull “No.”
As Serra’s final exclamation, he riveted his rage at the snitch, pointed his finger like a gun directly at him, and point-blank exploded, “You’re lying right now, aren’t you!?”
Only a stunned silence ensued. The bailiff escorted the snitch out of the courtroom.
“It’s a direct equation: the more informants, the fewer constitutional rights. And so, in a certain sense, as they say in our ecology, ‘The canaries are dying!’ Our canaries of freedom are dying in the stench of the informant system. Each canary is a case-a drug case, a civil-rights case, a political case-and as each case falls prey to the informant witness system, our precious liberties die with it.”
So I close with a warning: Wherever there is a clash of ideology, wherever there is warfare, there are always going to be some people who succumb, some who compromise, some who betray, some who, through cowardice or self-motivation, will be disloyal. That’s encountered everywhere. But we are in a war. The metaphor of the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on patriotism brings up the metaphor of lawyers as warriors! It’s better to die honorably with courage and self-respect than to live on as a token of victory for the oppressors.”