Dear Mr. Cooper:
My issue is not with the criticisms leveled at people like Giles or the Stop Snitching movement. My concern is over that which was not said. For example, the most interesting moment in the piece was David Kennedy's comment about police tactics in the war on drugs. However, you did not offer even a second sentence about that on the screen (at least in the CNN version) for Prof. Kennedy to elaborate on what those tactics might be or why they might have such an effect. Do you really consider those three seconds to constitute an adequate fulfillment of your professional responsibility to provide balanced and informative reporting?
A real examination of the "snitching" issue was provided in Ofra Bikel's 1999 documentary for Frontline, "Snitch." One of the prisoners Bikel interviewed, Clarence Aaron, received three life sentences while in college at age 23 because of a minor role in a drug transaction -- "conspiracy," as the government calls it. All the other participants got less time, even though their responsibility level in the deal had been greater. Aaron's cousin James, in fact, was sentenced to mere probation -- in exchange for testifying against Aaron -- and walked out of the courtroom a free man.
According to Aaron, his cousin told him that he "had to do what [he] had to do" and that that included lying to the jury. One of the objectives of prosecutor Deborah Griffin, apparently, was to cause a mistrial and force Aaron to switch to a less skilled attorney than the one he had, and she was able to use James to manipulate the situation to bring that about. If James didn't cooperate, he told Aaron, she threatened to "put [him] in prison for the rest of [his] life."
Of course, Aaron is still in prison today. You can read a little more about him in a column by the San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders here. She writes about him every year, at Christmas pardon time, so far to no avail.
Unfortunately, Aaron's case is unusual mainly for how much attention it's gotten. The exchange of leniency -- or even money -- for testimony that will help the prosecution is an absolutely routine tactic in the drug war. The DEA, in fact, continued to use a "super-snitch" named Andrew Chambers for numerous prosecutions after a court had determined him to be a repeat perjurer. Common sense tells us that testimony acquired in this way is not always reliable. It is a disgusting commentary on the state of our justice system that prosecutors would use a tactic like that so often. The fact that the mandatory minimum laws that garnered Aaron his life sentences were passed by Congress with neither hearings nor expert advice in other forms (according to my colleague Eric Sterling who appeared in Bikel's report), is equally troubling. The use of these laws to imprison minor offenders for long periods of time is also very common, but the term "mandatory minimum" did not appear in your report even once. Nor did you mention it was an anonymous informant's incorrect tip that led to the killing of 92-year old Kathryn Johnston by police officers in a no-knock raid in CNN's own hometown of Atlanta last year.
Research by the Sentencing Project has found that literally one in three young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the supervision of the criminal justice system -- prison, jail, probation or parole -- on any given day. Here in Washington the numbers are even higher. How difficult must it be for all of these people with convictions on their records to go on to find legitimate jobs? What kind of impact does such a massive and ongoing operation have on the bonds of family, friendship, or community? How many of these people go to jail or prison, what kinds of things do they learn there, how many of them catch serious diseases there and bring them back out? How often do they receive harsh mandatory minimum sentences like Clarence Aaron? At a conference I attended recently, a professor from Morehouse College, lamenting the situation, delivered a talk entitled "Where are the Men?" What should we be doing differently, or for that matter what should we stop doing, in order to address this? What does all of this do to change people, mostly in ways that we don't want, to cause more crime? I simply do not believe that one in three black men in this age group are criminals in any meaningful sense of the word.
I respectfully suggest it is the overuse and misuse of the criminal justice system -- not the words of some rappers -- that are the primary reasons anti-police sentiment in some of our communities runs so deep. I urge you to do a follow-up report to take a deeper look at these issues. After all, just because Lou Dobbs thinks we can stop drugs at the border doesn't make it so -- and if we could people would just use more of the drugs that can be grown or manufactured here. We therefore need to change the way we deal with drugs in a fundamental sense. Ending the disgraceful practice of purchasing or coercing testimony from "snitches" to send people away for years or decades would be a start.
Don't be a part of the problem, Mr. Cooper, be a part of the solution -- talk about this.
David Borden, Executive Director
Stop the Drug War