Interview with the Producer

Ofra Bikel
FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel talks about the making of "Snitch."

What was the first story you came across in your research that really caught your attention?

It was the story of Joey Settembrino, an 18-year-old who was set up by a good friend who himself was caught with drugs. The friend asked Joey to get some LSD for him. When Joey finally did that, he delivered it to the friend who was accompanied by a DEA agent. So obviously he was caught red-handed, and he pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But what really amazed me in this case was the fact that Joey had no one he could set up to help himself get a reduction in his sentence so his father was told that he, the father, could go set up people--try to sell them drugs--and if he were successful, and if the amount was large enough that would help reduce his son's prison term. To me, it seemed crazy--here was a businessman who had nothing to do with drugs, and he was on his way to set up people so he can reduce his son's prison term--it made no sense at all. But I realized no one else in the field thought that there was anything peculiar about it. The prosecutor kept saying, "What's wrong with this? We do it all the time!" That is when I realized we live in different worlds, and maybe I should figure out how their world works.

Why do you think prosecutors do it? Do they really think they are prosecuting people they shouldn't be?

It's their job. The man who prosecuted Lula May Smith, for example, is very nice. He said he was praying that she'd be found not guilty. And yet he prosecuted her. It was his job. And when you have a job, you have to do the best job you can. There's a lot of judges who cry and say, "I don't want to do that. I didn't want to give this young man 30 years, but I have no choice, this is the law." So are they happy doing it or unhappy doing it? It's hard to know. They won't exactly tell you. But it's their job. I don't blame them as much as I blame the laws.

Did you have a hard time getting prosecutors to talk to you?

It was never easy. It ranged from possible to very hard. In Mobile, Alabama, for example, it was next to impossible to talk to assistant prosecutors who are the ones who handle the cases; these people are really afraid of the press. One woman prosecutor, who made an appointment with us, hid in the bathroom when we came and wouldn't come out; then she called defense lawyers and warned them not to talk to us. Eventually they told us that they were not allowed to talk to the press. Why? They gave no reason. Eventually we did manage to get the U.S. attorney of the region, who is their boss and who did talk. As I mentioned before, I talked to the prosecutor who prosecuted Joey Settembrino. He was very nice, very open; the problem was, as I said before, that he did not understand why I was surprised at the fact that he would allow a father to go set up people to help his imprisoned son. At the end, his amazement at my amazement was actually helpful to me, because I realized that prosecutors routinely do things which we, lay people, find almost immoral.

Did you have difficulty finding informants who were willing to talk to you about what they had done?

You must realize that once informants make a deal, they can't tell you that they lied, because the moment they tell you that the information they gave to the government was false, the deal that the government made with them is null and void. They put them right back in jail. There are very few people who are walking the streets or serving a reduced sentence in prison who have made a deal with the government who are willing to say on television, "I lied, " like Ronald Rankins did in the program.

What happened with Ronald Rankins?

According to his story, he was a user, as he says, of drugs. And he sold drugs to maintain his habit. And he had a friend--actually, his boss--who had a cleaning service. The prosecutors wanted that man. They had a lot of things against him, but most of them had nothing to do with drugs. But then they caught him and and accused him of drugs. And Rankins was the star witness against him. And he really loved him. At first he said no. And then, again, according to him, the prosecutors said to him, "Look, it's either you or him. One of you is going to get a life sentence. You decide who it's going to be." And he finally took the stand and testified against his friend, and now he is saying his testimony was not true.

Do you think he's telling the truth now?

I don't know. That is the problem. My associate producer, Katie, and the crew were sure he was telling the truth. He was very poignant, very gentle, he seemed very honest. You almost can't not believe him--but you know that he lied. He either lied in the trial or he was lying to me, so how can you tell? And that itself should give the audience pause--we don't know really when he was telling the truth--but we do know that a man is spending his life in prison based on the testimony of a witness who now says he lied.

If he really was lying in his testimony, could you understand why or how he could do that?

He himself asked me, "If they tell you you're getting life unless you testify against somebody, your neighbor or your friend, what would you do?" Obviously I don't really have an answer to that because it's so hard to imagine being in that situation, but, if I'm very honest with myself, I would have to say that I would probably make up a story in order not to spend my life in prison. I admire people who wouldn't for the principle of it, but I probably would. If I had to put you in prison, I would hope that you would find someone else to put in your place. I would hate to do it, but I would hate more to spend my life in prison. So, of course, I understand why people lie in that situation. I understand it very well.

Do you think the system is going to change?

There are some things that have changed. There is now a safety valve provision in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws so that if you're a first-time offender, you get some sort of a break. But I think that everybody knows that the system is lousy. I don't think anybody is under illusions that it's working. The politicians know. Everybody knows. But there is no one who has the nerve to stand today on the floor of the Congress and say that the laws on crime should be cut back. In today's atmosphere that would be political suicide.

What disturbed you the most about these laws?

A lot of things disturbed me. Starting with the fact that the only way to escape a huge sentence is to rat on someone, and ending with the fact that you don't have to have any drugs in evidence in order to be convicted on federal drug charges. Informants' testimony is enough. You can get 30 to life in prison because some people said they used to deal drugs with you, nothing more. This was very hard for me to accept. It made me think of all the things that we hated so much in the Soviet system: family members informing on family members, a friend rats on a friend. Now we are encouraged to do it, and we are doing it. We are quickly becoming a society of informants, and this can't be good for us.

Is there anything that can be done? For example, if viewers of this program are concerned, what can they do?

It's the people's Congress, it's the people's law. The Congress passed these laws for the people. If the people don't like the laws--once they realize how unjust they can be, how they can damage the fabric of the society--they should make their opinions known to the legislators.

Eric Sterling, who was counsel to the House Committee on Crime and who helped write the mandatory minimum sentencing laws explains in the program how these laws came to see the light of day. It's a funny story, if it weren't so serious. These laws were conceived at the height of the crack epidemic. The whole thing was done in one month, without thought, no research, no input from anyone, a political gambit for members to get reelected. Eventually there were amendments to the laws which were also tacked on thoughtlessly, and it created sort of a witches brew. No one ever sat down and said, "Let's take a look at what we have here--conspiracy laws added to the mandatory minimum laws, how is it working? Is it working? The politicians don't look at it, the public doesn't care--until it touches them.

Do you think realistically that law enforcement could prosecute drug dealers effectively without the use of informants?

Many responsible people tell me that they don't know how you can have a criminal justice system without the use of informants, but I do know that this lends itself to terrible abuse, especially in drug cases, when snitching is the only way to save yourself. It not only encourages snitches, it encourages lies, it ensures that the people who have lots of information can inform on underling s who have less information. At the end, it affects innocent people. So if I had to give up snitches altogether, even those who really help to solve big crimes, in order to put a stop to what's happening now, I would do it. What is happening now with snitching in drug cases is too unjust and intellectually corrupt.

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