FDL Book Salon Welcomes Ethan Brown, Author of “Snitch: Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice”

Snitch cover

Who’s a snitch? In the context of the federal criminal justice system and this discussion, it’s not the unwitting citizen who witnesses a crime and identifies the perpetrator for the police. Nor is it the victim of a physical crime who identifies and testifies against her assailant. Rather, a snitch is a participant in criminal activity who rats out other alleged wrongdoers in exchange for immunity from prosecution or a lighter sentence. Remember the phrase, "Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time?" Snitches can’t or won’t do their time.

Snitch (cooperators’) testimony is purchased testimony. It is testimony the Government purchases with promises of leniency. The problem is that freedom is a commodity far more precious than money and the incentive to lie or embellish is enormous. In my view, the practice of rewarding snitches for testimony has made our criminal justice system morally bankrupt.

In drug cases, mandatory minimum sentences range from 5, 10 to 20 years, depending on the type and quantity of drugs involved and whether the offender has a prior felony drug conviction. In many instances, the maximum sentence allowed is a life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. Too often, the only way out from these draconian sentences is to snitch.

All the cooperator has to do is tell the truth about misdeeds of others — others whom the Government has an interest in convicting. The truth, of course, has to fit the Government’s theory or version of the truth. A few defendants, like Susan McDougal in the Whitewater case, refuse to play along. Many more agree, even if the Government’s truth varies from their own version of events. In the federal system, the culprit is Section 5k1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

Late Night: Mike Huckabee’s Tangled Web

spiderweb.thumbnail.jpg(First let me say I love FDL’s new look and the additions of Marcy and TBogg. This site rocks. And now on to Late Night…)

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive….

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is on the ropes after his repeated denials that he recommended parole for Arkansas rapist and murderer Wayne Dumond. For background on the Wayne Dumond case, check out Byron York’s article today at the National Review.

It began in September 1984, when Dumond, a 35-year-old handyman, kidnapped and raped a 17-year-old high-school cheerleader in the small eastern-Arkansas town of Forrest City. Dumond was allowed to remain free on bond while awaiting trial, and in March 1985 two masked men entered his house, tied him up with fishing line, and castrated him. People were stunned; the case, already notorious, became much more so. And that was before the local sheriff, a rather colorful man named Coolidge Conlee, displayed Dumond’s severed testicles in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk in the St. Francis County building. Amid tons of publicity, Dumond was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 20 years.

The case took on a political coloring when it became known that the victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. After conviction, Dumond, who claimed he was innocent, asked Clinton for clemency. Clinton declined.

For details about what Huckabee knew about Dumond and when he knew it, see Murray Waas’ article at the Huffington Post yesterday. Also, here’s a detailed chronology (pdf) of events concerning the case.

York interviewed Huckabee last August about his role in Dumond’s release. (more…)

Crack Cocaine Sentence Reductions Start Today

Blacks in prison Finally, a little relief is at hand for the vastly disparate and draconian crack cocaine sentences meted out by federal courts. New federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses went into effect today.

Starting today, many offenders sentenced in federal court for crack will receive a sentence about 16 months less than they would have yesterday.

By way of background, through mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the Feds have punished crack crimes far more severely than those involving powder cocaine. The U.S. Sentencing Commission followed suit by enacting guidelines that matched the mandatory minimums.

A crime involving five grams of crack cocaine carries a mandatory sentence of five years in prison, and 50 grams carries a 10-year penalty. However, it takes 500 and 1,000 grams of powdered cocaine to trigger the same five and 10 year sentences.

The 100 to 1 ratio between powder and crack cocaine penalties has no rational or scientific basis. (You know you’re onto something when even Joe Biden agrees.) After years of debate and studies demonstrating this, and with statistics showing that the crack penalties resulted in great racial disparity in sentences, in May, the United States Sentencing Commission proposed dropping the penalties for crack offenses by two levels. Congress had until October 31 to oppose new guideline. It didn’t object, so the new guideline became effective today.

This is a welcome step in the right direction. But let’s be very clear. It’s not time to open the champagne. This is a relatively minor reduction and it doesn’t apply to all defendants. (more…)

Mistrial in Dallas “Flagship” Terrorism Financing Trial

Holy Land Photo.

A mistrial was declared in Dallas yesterday in the Government’s “flagship” terrorism financing prosecution of a Muslim charity. With 197 counts to choose from and after two months of trial and 19 days of deliberation, there were no convictions on any of the counts for the five alleged leaders of the organization.

The case, involving the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five of its backers, is the government’s largest and most complex legal effort to shut down what it contends is American financing for terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

President Bush froze the groups’ assets in 2001. He claimed they were a pipeline to Hamas. The indictment, however, didn’t charge the group with financing terror efforts.

Instead, the prosecution said, the foundation supported terrorism by sending more than $12 million to charitable groups, known as zakat committees, which build hospitals and feed the poor.

Prosecutors said the committees were controlled by Hamas and contributed to terrorism by helping Hamas spread its ideology and recruit supporters. The government relied on Israeli intelligence agents, using pseudonyms, to testify in support of this theory.

The jury was having none of it. (more…)

ACLU Scores a Big Win Against the Patriot Act

Gagged A federal judge in New York today struck a fatal blow to the Patriot Act provision authorizing national security letters. The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit, reports:

The law has permitted the FBI to issue NSLs demanding private information about people within the United States without court approval, and to gag those who receive NSLs from discussing them. The court found that the gag power was unconstitutional and that because the statute prevented courts from engaging in meaningful judicial review of gags, it violated the First Amendment and the principle of separation of powers.

The case is Doe v. Gonzales and the 106 page opinion is available here (pdf). You can see a copy of a national security letter here (pdf).

This is an important decision. National Security letters are not just used to get records of suspected terrorists and they have a tremendous potential for abuse.

NSLs may be used to obtain access to subscriber, billing or transactional records from Internet service providers; to obtain a wide array of financial and credit documents; or even to obtain library records. In almost all cases, recipients of NSLs are forbidden, or “gagged,” from disclosing that they have received the letters, even to close family and friends. This has been a severe hardship on NSL recipients, who not only have been forced to keep this major event secret, but who have been prevented from meaningfully participating in public discussions about NSLs. The court today held that because the gag provisions cannot be separated from the entire amended statute, the court was compelled to strike down the entire statute.

In other words, since the individual receiving the request for records is “gagged,” i.e., not permitted to disclose receipt of the letter, he or she can’t challenge it, even in a court of law. That results in no judicial oversight.

“Without oversight, there is nothing to stop the government from engaging in broad fishing expeditions, or targeting people for the wrong reasons, and then gagging Americans from ever speaking out against potential abuses of this intrusive surveillance power.”


Announcing the YKos Panel on Live-Blogging the Scooter Libby Trial

Plame House BloggingHear Ye, Hear Ye, the Yearly Kos Scooter Libby Live-Blogging Panel will soon be in session.

If you are attending Yearly Kos in Chicago, it’s time to mark your calendars for opening day, August 2. You won’t want to miss your esteemed hostess Christy Hardin-Smith and indispensable FDL contributor Marcy Wheeler of The Next Hurrah provide their behind-the-scenes look at live-blogging the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Also on the panel is Sheldon Snook, the Administrative Assistant to the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Sheldon (who goes by his nickname Shelly) was the court official in charge of news media at the Libby trial.

I’ll be there as well, moderating the panel.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind FDL readers, but I will anyway, that Firedoglake provided ground-breaking coverage of the trial. As the New York Times wrote:

A collective of liberal bloggers, fueled by online donations and a fanatical devotion to the intricacies of the Libby case, Firedoglake has offered intensive trial coverage, using some six contributors in rotation. They include a former prosecutor, a current defense lawyer, a Ph.D. business consultant and a movie producer, all of whom lodge at a Washington apartment rented for the duration of the trial.

All day long during the trial, one Firedoglake blogger is on duty to beam to the Web from the courthouse media room a rough, real-time transcript of the testimony. With no audio or video feed permitted, the Firedoglake “live blog” has offered the fullest, fastest public report available. Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial.

While the Libby trial was not, as some reported early on, the first federal trial in D.C. covered by a credentialed blogger (see the appended correction to the New York Times article) it was the first federal trial in which the court intentionally provided such credentials. As Sheldon Snook said before the trial started: (more…)

Life on Supervised Release

TalkLeft: Scooter LibbyThe Scooter Libby question of the day is whether the Court can make Libby serve two years on supervised release as President Bush directed in his Executive Clemency Order, now that his prison sentence has been commuted. (For background, see Sentencing Law and Policy, Scotus Blog, Christy and TalkLeft.)

As we wait for Judge Walton’s decision on whether supervised release only can be imposed on defendants who have completed a prison sentence, let’s take a look at what supervised release is all about.

Supervised release made its debut in 1987 with the enactment of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. It replaced federal parole for all crimes committed after November 1, 1987.

This was a big deal because under the parole system, people got a relatively big chunk of jail time cut from their sentence. Your sentence wasn’t over, parole just allowed you to serve the last 1/3 or 1/2 (or whatever) at home.

When the sentencing guidelines came in and parole was abolished, it brought a new way of calculating the amount of time you spend in prison. Under a guideline sentence, you serve it all except for good time which is limited to 54 days a year or roughly 85% of your sentence. And you don’t get any good time until you’ve served a full year.

Instead of being released from prison to serve the remainder of your sentence on parole, now you get released to begin a term of supervised release.

Unlike parole, a term of supervised release does not replace a portion of the sentence of imprisonment, but rather is an order of supervision in addition to any term of imprisonment imposed by the court.

It’s like a second sentence, one to supervision, which begins after your jail sentence ends. That’s why the law says supervised release follows a jail sentence, and why Judge Walton is concerned that if Libby doesn’t go to jail in the first instance, he can’t be put on supervised release when he gets out. (Judge Walton’s Order directing briefs on the issue is here.)

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Judge finds Libby can be put on supervised release even though his prison sentence was commuted. What does it mean for him? How does it affect his life? (more…)

Is A Quarantine Headed Our Way?


With ten dead in Iraq today and five Britons kidnapped, I was looking for some good news to write about. I didn’t find it. And in what seems like a page out of a science-fiction novel, I found this: U.S. Isolates Traveler Infected with Super-TB.

The United States has isolated a man who may have exposed fellow passengers on two transatlantic flights to a strain of tuberculosis that is extremely hard to treat, officials said on Tuesday.

It was the first time the federal government has issued such an isolation order since at least 1963, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said authorities were trying to notify passengers who traveled aboard Air France 385 from Atlanta to Paris on May 13 and back to the United States from Prague on Czech Air Flight 0104 on May 24.

It caught my attention immediately because while flipping channels this weekend, I happened upon the tv premiere of the movie Pandemic on the Hallmark Channel. It was about the quarantining of passengers arriving at LAX from Australia after a young man died en route. They suspected he had bird flu, but whatever he had, there was no vaccine. (more…)

Iraq to Bar Media Coverage of Bombings

Iraq Civil War

Hi everyone, it’s Jeralyn from TalkLeft filling in for Jane this afternoon.

I was going to write about opening arguments in the Jose Padilla trial, or the new DNA database legislation introduced by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer that would make it easier for inmates to request DNA testing to establish their innocence or the three missing soldiers in Iraq, for whom al-Qaida now warns the U.S. to cease search efforts and whom it now seems were seized in retaliation for the 2005 Mahmudiya rape and killing of a teenage girl, but then I spotted this:

Iraq’s interior ministry has decided to bar news photographers and camera operators from the scenes of bomb attacks, operations director Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf said on Sunday (local time).

His announcement was the latest in a series of attempts to curtail press coverage of the ongoing conflict, which has already attracted criticism from international human rights bodies.

That got me thinking, how real is the War in Iraq to Americans who don’t have a loved one fighting in the conflict? Where has the news coverage been of the gory daily details? (more…)

The Worst Argument for Libby’s Acquittal


Former prosecutor Victoria Toensing has an op-ed in the Washington Post today (debunked nicely by Larry Johnson)outlining her case for Scooter Libby's acquittal. In two words: jury nullification.

(Thanks, Victoria, for attempting to personally smear the prosecutor on the eve of closing arguments. I bet if a true criminal defense lawyer wrote an article like that you'd accuse him or her of trying to influence the jury pool.)

Toensing is playing to the court of public opinion here, not the court of law. By setting forth her grounds for indicting others in the case, she's advocating exactly what Patrick Fitzgerald has said he's on guard against: the defense playing the jury nullification card, arguing that it's not fair Libby was charged while others weren't.

I don't think Team Libby is going to make that argument, at least not directly. They know Patrick Fitzgerald would repeatedly interrupt Wells' closing to object and there's few things worse than losing your rhythm and the jury's undivided attention in closing because of objections from the other side.

I suspect Wells will argue reasonable doubt. He will tell the jury there is a reasonable doubt that Russert, Cooper, Miller, et. al. are accurate in their recall of conversations while Libby is not. He will tell them that even if they believe the Government witnesses are accurate, they must have a reasonable doubt that Libby intentionally lied or tried to mislead the grand jury, as opposed to being mistaken. All Wells needs for a not guilty verdict is for the jury to weigh the evidence and conclude one of these eight scenarios apply: (more…)