Ethan Brown: Snitching On Snitches

Investigative journalist Ethan Brown recently followed up his critically acclaimed Queens Reigns Supreme with the true crime book titled Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice. Brown’s new book provides insight into the secret history of the Stop Snitching movement and documents a troubling by-product of the War on Drugs, “a cottage industry of […]

Investigative journalist Ethan Brown recently followed up his critically acclaimed Queens Reigns Supreme with the true crime book titled Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice. Brown’s new book provides insight into the secret history of the Stop Snitching movement and documents a troubling by-product of the War on Drugs, “a cottage industry of cooperators” who pervert the US legal system. Snitch describes an ailing US criminal justice system that coddles defendants who play “The 5K game” in order to gain reduced sentences for themselves. Brown’s extensive research traces the subject back to the 1980’s with the evolution of huge mandatory sentences for miniscule amounts of street drugs. The sentencing guidelines did, however, provide an out for those accused, Section 5K 1.1, which states that if defendants gave “substantial assistance” to prosecutors they could receive a “downward departure” from the sentencing mandates.  Subsequently, Brown states that everybody in court started snitching, even if they had to lie.This new book is a provocative collection of comprehensively researched case studies annotated with compelling appendices containing court documents related to high profile cases such as the shooting of Tupac Shakur and the trial of Irv Gotti. A true crime revelation, Brown connects the dots between deadly shootings and court room skullduggery revealing a picture of an American justice system at odds with itself. Ethan Brown’s Snitch is published by PublicAffairs and is presently available from finer booksellers. Brown discusses his new book and a recent Supreme Court ruling which has enormous implications for tens of thousands of Americans currently behind the  Your body of work delves repeatedly into crime and the US justice system. But it also reaches into Hip-Hop culture in an intimate way.  How did you come to combining the two subjects in your writing?Ethan Brown: I grew up on Hip-Hop; I’ve been a Hip-Hop fan since I was a pre-teen. The first 45 I ever bought was the theme from Beat Street and I haven’t stopped listening to hip-hop ever since (though I’d say that my passion for hip-hop dropped off significantly beginning in the early 1990s with the rise of gangsta [sic] rap). I started becoming interested in criminal justice issues when I was in Journalism School at NYU in the mid-late 1990s. I was making a lot of street contacts and at the same time I began doing a lot of reading in the criminal justice/drug policy area. And when I began working at New York Magazine in 1999, I did a lot of writing on criminal justice issues, from writing about a Harlem based crack dealing crew called the Black Top Gang to doing a cover story about the very beginnings of the federal investigation into Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo.  In the media these days it is common to hear Hip-Hop referred to as a criminal culture. Do you think it’s fair to say that Hip-Hop is any more criminal than other genre’s in the music business?Ethan Brown: I think that Hip-Hop takes its cues from the streets but I don’t think it’s a criminal culture at all. In fact, much of the time rappers simply model themselves after street guys—that’s why you have the phenomenon of rappers naming themselves after drug dealers, for example. How did the Irv Gotti trial inspire the research into the subject matter you’ve presented in Snitch?Ethan Brown: I spent years researching the Irv Gotti case for my first book Queens Reigns Supreme. And the feds’ investigation into Irv spanned years and involved agencies ranging from the DEA, IRS and FBI. So, naturally I expected that the case against Irv—he was charged with money laundering—would represent the feds at their very best, with reams of evidence being brought to trial. But that did not happen. Instead, the feds paraded a casting call of cooperators and informants into the courtroom who were clearly not telling the truth. The credibility of these informants and cooperators was shredded under cross examination by Irv’s defense attorneys, and worse it turned out that the feds did very little investigative work of their own. So I asked myself: is this how the feds typically conduct investigations? And if so, what does this say about the criminal justice system in America? With Snitch, I tried to answer these questions.  In what way does this snitch culture harm the US justice system?Ethan Brown: Well, we have a federal criminal justice system that is “snitch-led.” Investigative work has been replaced by the word of informants. And we’re not even corroborating the word of those informants. Worst of all, prosecutors have near total discretion in how they handle cooperators (for example, cooperators who commit perjury are rarely—if ever—punished). Unsurprisingly, this is a system in which the innocent are routinely convicted. How did you research this book?Ethan Brown: Snitch involved poring over case files and courtroom transcripts for specific defendants and doing tons of research into drug policy and criminal justice  Did secrecy hamper your efforts? Ethan Brown: Not really, though it’s worth noting that cooperation process is shrouded in secrecy by the feds. I’ve read that the US has the largest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other country in the world.  Is this a recent development?Ethan Brown: It is a fairly recent development. Our system of prisons and jails exploded in the mid to late 1980s with the passage of very harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug related offenses. Have a look at these charts from the Department of Justice: “Of cases concluded in Federal district court since 1989, drug cases have increased at the greatest rate.” incarceration rate in the US has gone from just over 100 offenders per 100,000 in 1980 to 500 offenders per 100,000 population, drug arrests have gone from under 500,000 in 1970 to more than 1.5 million  Much of this is the result of mandatory minimums.  What is “Hershey Bar Justice”? Ethan Brown: “Hershey Bar Justice” is a phrase used to describe sentences for selling crack cocaine. If you’re caught selling 50 grams of crack—the weight of Hershey bar—you get 10 years in the federal Are people really seeing 40 year mandatory sentences under the current system?Ethan Brown: Yes we are. And in fact, we’re seeing life sentences being regularly handed down as well. Check out this report from The Sentencing Project: “The number of convicted felons serving some kind of life sentence has rocketed to 127,000 nationwide — an 83 percent jump since 1992. More than a quarter of them are ineligible for parole.” So what you are saying is that everybody is telling on everybody else, sometimes lying on them, just to get out of jail. Is there an academic body of work already available on the subject of the correlation between sentencing and snitching?Ethan Brown: Yes, there is. Check out of the work of Loyola Law School law professor Alexandra Natapoff which you can read here: Alexandra writes about 5K Deals and the effects of snitching on minority communities. Do you think the street level Stop Snitching movement is a reaction to this phenomenon?Ethan Brown: I do, yes. I interviewed the creator of the Stop Snitching DVD, Rodney Bethea, for my book. He explained that Stop Snitching was about bringing about a return to “old school” street rules, meaning that if you do the crime, you do the time. Of course, old school street rules reigned during a time before the sentencing guidelines which established very generous benefits (i.e., sentence reductions) for cooperators. Didn’t the mainstream media pigeonhole the Stop Snitching DVD as simple witness intimidation?Ethan Brown: I think that the media loves an easy, sensational story and the Stop Snitching DVD provided them with one. When the Baltimore PD called the DVD a witness intimidation tool the media simply went along with this explanation without doing any of their own reporting. Indeed, Rodney Bethea was not interviewed by most journalists covering the issue and when he was interviewed his ideas were not taken seriously. Bethea was also treated like a criminal by the media when in fact he’s not a street guy at all but actually a barber and film/clothing entrepreneur. I think every effort was made by the media to marginalize and discredit Bethea and the DVD. I will not speculate on why this happened, I don’t know the motivation of the journalists involved, but it certainly happened I heard some tales around your first release, stuff like you got chased out of book signings by gangsters. What happened there?Ethan Brown: When I went out to promote Queens Reigns Supreme, I had several interesting experiences doing in-store signings. Very often, I’d be confronted by someone who believed that I was either making a huge profit off of a very dark moment in the history of African-Americans (the crack era) or that I was somehow “exposing” criminal deeds. Neither charge was true, I received a low advance for Queens Reigns Supreme and the cases described in the first half of the book had long been closed. And when it came to the one case in the book that was at the time on-going—Irv Gotti’s case—I made it clear that the charges were just that; allegations of wrong-doing. These conversations/confrontations made for some interesting moments, which frightened bookstore workers but didn’t much scare me actually, and it’s certainly very, very unusual to have book signings where employees are worried about the author’s safety! How does the recent Supreme Court ruling about crack sentencing relate to your conclusions in Snitch?Ethan Brown: The recent Supreme Court decision will likely have a huge impact on the federal criminal justice system. The Court ruled that federal judges are free to disagree with the sentencing guidelines and can impose what they believe to be reasonable sentences even if such sentences are lower than the guideline range. This means that while we still have sentencing guidelines for drug related offenses, a judge can impose a shorter sentence if he believes the circumstances of an individual defendant warrant a lower sentence. And it means that judges will be getting some judicial discretion back—they don’t simply have to follow a guideline sentence, as they had done before. Another major development in the sentencing world happened this week: The United States Sentencing Commission voted to give federal inmates a chance to reduce their sentences based on the new, shorter sentences for crack cocaine related offenses that were established earlier this year. This is huge because approximately 19,000 inmates in the federal system could be eligible for a reduction in their sentence.