Interview: Robert F. Clark

Robert F. Clark
Robert Clark was an Alabama defense attorney in Clarence Aaron's first trial.

The truth is what the government wants it to be, because only the government [can] file for the downward departure.  And only the government can help them.  It's bought and paid for testimony. Tell me about the Aaron case.

Clarence Aaron was a young man. When I met him he must have been 23, 24 years old. He was a senior [in college]. He had met another fellow that was a bondsman there, and Mr. Aaron, according to the government, not according to Mr. Aaron, but according to the government, Clarence Aaron had gone to Houston on two, possibly three, occasions and had brought back from Houston some cocaine into the Middle District of Louisiana I believe it was, and into the Southern District of Alabama. He was basically a mule. ... According to the government he was given a few thousand dollars to make these trips and bring the cocaine here. Once he got here, some of the cocaine was cooked into crack, so he became responsible for the crack cocaine, and since it was more than one and a half kilos, he got life in the penitentiary without the possibility of parole. At age 24.

Who were his co-conspirators?

They named a number of people; he was only tried with one other. He was tried with a bail bondsman from Louisiana, just the two of them were tried, but the conspiracy I think probably was eight or ten different people, and I think that according to the government there was no question that Clarence Aaron was just a mule. He wasn't a big drug dealer. He was just, according to them, hauling drugs from time to time.

The others were dealers?

The codefendant that got Clarence involved, according to the government, got, if I'm not mistaken, about 17 or 18 years. But since some of the cocaine was brought to Mobile and turned into crack, then Clarence Aaron became responsible for the crack, even though he didn't cook it, he didn't have anything to do with it, he became responsible for it in the structure of the conspiracy. So his boss up the line got 18 years, and as a carrier since he was responsible for the crack, he got the life without.

Did they snitch on him?

I've forgotten how many snitches they had, it was four or five snitches. I believe one of them was his cousin. Various people that told the story of him going out to Houston and bringing back the drugs. ...

Why was Clarence singled out?

Clarence got the most time because he refused to snitch. He refused to be a rat for the government, so as an example, they loaded his wagon. ...

He refused because he was honorable or because he didn't know anything?

A little bit of both. Everybody up the food chain from him had already been convicted. There was nobody underneath him, so there wasn't much that he could say anyway. And then I think he was an honorable man. I think he said, "I have done whatever, and if I get convicted I'm willing to take my medicine."

You were his lawyer?

Not at the trial. I was up until the morning of the trial, and the government came in with a witness and conflicted me out, and Dennis Knizley tried the case. ...

Why does the government use snitches?

Snitches are used by the government because it makes their life a lot easier. They can have a witness to any particular fact they want by making a deal with a snitch. ...

What does "substantial assistance" mean?

Substantial assistance means that you have done what the government asked you to do. Let's say that you don't know anything, that you're on the bottom of the food chain. Then you can't get substantial assistence because you don't know enough. Unless you're willing to lie just a little bit and help the government. Then your assistance becomes substantial. ...

What about the truth?

They want convictions. The lawyers for the government are working for the government and their object and whole objective in life is to get people convicted. And they will do most anything to accomplish their end. ...

Even if the snitch is lying?

What they usually do is tell the cooperating individual what the truth is, and then he sings their song. ... The government usually scripts the story and they say this is what everybody has done, and this is what everybody knows, let's all get it together. In fact, when they try people here in the Southern District of Alabama, they put all the rats and snitches together in one cell, and after they testify, they go back to the snitch cell and compare stories and compare notes and if the prosecutor's mad at one of them for having said something wrong, then the rest of them know not to say that. ... It's just like a play of some kind.

Do they admit it?

Certainly they don't admit it. They don't admit that they prep anybody.

How do they describe the use of snitches?

The government, they always say, "I would have preferred to have a priest come in, but the defendant didn't hang out with priests. He hung out with scumbags and low rent types, and that's what we had to make a case out of."

What is a conspiracy?

A conspiracy is any two people that you can throw one blanket over. That's a conspiracy. ... If you and I get drunk sitting in a bar, and we say something to the effect, "Why don't we go get us some cocaine and sell it and make a lot of money," that is a conspiracy. We have made an agreement. We don't have to go out and do anything. All we have to do is make the agreement. ... Once we've made the agreement, we have committed a heinous criminal offense. We could be sitting there, and 30 minutes later say, "Well, no, it's a bad idea." ... We've still committed a criminal offense.

You get jail for that?

Certainly. The essence of most federal criminal cases is the conspiracy count. ... Conspiracy means that if you were in the same room at any given time in your life with somebody that did something criminal, then you're part of that conspiracy.

Whether you knew it or not?

The law is you have to have knowledge of it and you have to intend to join a conspiracy, but that's so much horse feathers. In practice that's not the way it works. The way it works is that they can get anybody for conspiracy.

What's a dry conspiracy?

... A lot of cases [are] what we call a dry conspiracy. No drugs were ever found. There's no proof that anybody had any drugs, other than some rat comes up and says we had drugs. And the prosecutor says, "If you just say you had drugs, then Mr. X or whomever it is, he's only going to go to prison for six or eight years. But if you say, 'We had a kilo and a half of crack cocaine,' we can send him away for a million years. So how much cocaine did he have?" And pretty soon the snitch figures it out. He had to have a kilo and a half of crack cocaine. ...

How do they decide the amount of drugs?

In a dry conspiracy the government decides. They write the script. And they say. "We bet this much was involved," and that's how much it is. That's what the snitch is going to say, and it's made so that the greater the amount, the longer the time, the better the numbers ... .

Do you think it's because prosecutors are lazy?

Conspiracy is ... the darling of the prosecutor. You don't have to catch people. You can sit in your office and say, "We have a conspiracy."

No police?

No, just sit in your office ... no guns involved. No heavy lifting. Nothing. Just sit there and decide what's a conspiracy. And indict everybody with the conspiracy. ...

How deep can they go?

To the last act of the conspiracy. Once you get out [of the conspiracy], you're still liable, even though the statute of limitations starts to run on you, you're still liable to the last act of the conspiracy. ...

You can't escape?

You can never escape. Once you have entered into that web, you're toast.

How can you reduce your sentence?

Your sentence can't be reduced. There's nothing you can do to get it reduced. You cannot file a motion on your own or have your lawyer file a motion. Only the government in its infinite wisdom can file for a Rule 35, to have your sentence reduced. The judge can't do it on his own. It has to be filed by the United States government, and what they do in a lot of instances, they will take someone and at that sentencing, they will go ahead and give them their 5K-1.1 downward departure, and that means that they get less than what the sentencing guidelines would call for. Once the government has made the departure motion, the judge can give any sentence he wants to. There is no limit to his discretion at that point.

But a lot of times they will sentence someone and send them off to jail, and then a new defendant will arrive on the scene and they go to the usual snitch pen and say, "Who knows something about him?" and so everybody raises their hand and they come forward and they say, "Well, I want more time off. I made a good deal last time and to snitch on somebody else, I want some more time off." And the prosecutor can file a Rule 35 motion and ask the judge to give them even more time off. It's very profitable for the snitch. I mean he can work it so he can really reduce his time in the penitentiary.

Why do juries believe snitches?

I think that most jurors believe snitches because they trust the government. They're trusting their government to do the right thing. ...

Do jurors know about mandatory minimum sentences?

The jurors usually have no earthly idea of what kind of sentence is going to be imposed. I think most jurors, if they were told what punishment the crimes carry or conviction carries, ... would have serious doubts or would reflect on it more seriously than what they do now.

Why don't they know?

Because no one wants to tell them. Nobody wants to let them know how severe it is. Theoretically, are supposed to be kept in the dark so they'll be fair and impartial. ... Of course if you're very clever defense lawyer usually you can get that in. You take the snitch and go to the black board and put on how much time he was originally looking at and most jurors can figure out that's how much time your client is looking at. ...

Do snitches lie?

Do I feel that snitches lie? Only when their mouth is moving. You know, if they're asleep, most of the time they don't, but ... oh, they will say anything. They're prostitutes. I don't know how you could run a criminal justice system without the use of informants, but at the same time, it allows itself for such abuse. ...

I seriously doubt that any of them tell the truth when they testify. ... Doesn't matter what the witness says, what the snitch says. Eventually, the snitch catches on to what the truth is. The truth is what the government wants it to be, because only the government [can] file for the downward departure. And only the government can help them. It's bought and paid for testimony. If I offered a witness a hundred dollar bill to come down and say it my way, I'd go to prison for that. But yet the government can give them something far more precious than money. Far more precious than diamonds or gold or anything. They can give them freedom. ...

How do people feel about snitches?

I don't think anyone likes snitches. I think the prosecutors hate snitches. I think cops hate snitches. ... Defense lawyers hate them. Everybody hates them. It's like chemotherapy, you know, you have to have it some times, but nobody likes it. Nobody wants it.

Do you have to have it?

I don't think so. Well, you probably have to have it to some extent. You don't have to have it to the extent that is used today. I think that there should be more regulations of how you're going to use them and under what circumstances you can use them. I don't think that you should be allowed to try a dry conspiracy. If you don't catch nobody with no drugs, then, you know, no harm, no foul. I think that it lends itself to too much abuse. It lends itself to a perversion of the system when people can take the stand and lie with impunity, because the government never indicts anybody. I don't recall them ever indicting a snitch for lying. But pre-trial they call them all liars. They threaten them. They threaten them constantly. They take [them] in rooms with FBI agents, and threaten to send them to the penitentiary for the rest of their life if they don't tell the story that they want to hear. ...

navigation, see below for text

home | two cases | pro/con | primer | inside the mind | ending leniency
the producer | readings | discussion | synopsis | press | tapes & transcripts
frontline online | pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
Some Images Copyright &copy 1999 Photodisc