Air Date: January 12, 1999
Written, Produced and Directed by Ofra Bikel
AGENT: Please open the door!
ANNOUNCER: In the war on drugs, one of the more important
weapons the government uses is the informant.
"TONY": What would you do if the government came knocking on
your door telling you that you will get 30 years in prison unless you
inform on somebody? Or that your child will get 20 years unless he
informs? Think about it.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: The attorney told me, he says, "Jim, he
could go to jail for 30 years." I says, "Thirty years? Are you crazy?"
And he said, "Yeah, 30 years." I says, "He's 18 years old." You know,
"How can someone go to jail for 30 years for selling drugs?"
ANNOUNCER: With mandatory minimum penalties now for drug
offenses, the pressure is on to name names. But with so much at stake,
can an informant be trusted to be telling the truth?
ERIC STERLING: In New York City police officers call it
"testalying." In Los Angeles, they call it "the liars club." Everybody
knows that lying takes place. The prosecutors don't feel bad about it.
This is simply part of the system.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, an inside look at the way
the very nature of justice has been altered by the "Snitch."
NARRATOR: "Tony" lives in a world of shadows. His name has
been changed and his identity hidden. Facing a life sentence, he made a
deal with the government and become an informant, a snitch.
"TONY": I was in drugs, the sale of drugs, for a total of
about three years. And I made enough money to open up a legitimate
business, and I got out of it. So basically, I was in and out very
INTERVIEWER: So how did they get you?
"TONY": Well, the people that I was associated with in the
very beginning of my drug-dealing days, they continued on. So eventually
they got caught, and they wanted to get their sentences reduced, so they
started naming names. And they used my name to try and get out of jail
NARRATOR: Nowhere in the criminal justice system are
informants used more than in the war on drugs. They are used by the FBI,
DEA and Customs, among other law enforcement agencies. Almost every
bust, every seizure, every arrest is the result of an informant's, or
snitch's, work. Tony was snitched on years after he stopped dealing
"TONY": I was never arrested with any drugs in my life. I was
never even arrested with a large amount of money. I was very far away
from drugs when they finally came and arrested me.
NARRATOR: But he knew that there were informants ready to
testify against him.
"TONY": You have a prison population, guys that are doing
life sentences who will do anything to get out of prison. In my case,
there were actually people who were reading the newspaper. When the
newspapers came out, there were people who, I found out later, called
the government, and they said "Hey, I can testify against this person."
So how do you- how do you fight against something like that, when it's
just somebody's word against yours?
NARRATOR: The government had him over a barrel because of the
harsh penalties it enacted in the late 1980s. If Tony had refused to
cooperate and testify against his old-time drug supplier, he could have
received life in prison. Still, he said, he held out.
"TONY": I decided not to cooperate. I had my mind made up to
go to trial. So what they did is, they indicted my mother and my
INTERVIEWER: To pressure you?
INTERVIEWER: Were they involved at all in drugs?
"TONY": Absolutely- No. They were involved in nothing. Never
did they even know what I was doing. I had to make the toughest choice
of my life. It was either let my family possibly go to prison for
something they had nothing to do with, or cooperate with the
NARRATOR: He cooperated and served 10 years in prison in a
unit reserved for informants. Tony asked to be interviewed in
silhouette. He was concerned, he said, about the reaction of the
"TONY": They don't like any witnesses to come forward to talk
to the media, and witnesses who have done this in the past have been
retaliated against. I'm not getting paid for this interview. I'm talking
to you because there's a need for the public to know what's going on
with this- with this so-called "drug war."
J. DON FOSTER, U.S. Attorney: As far as snitches go, if
they're helping to solve this terrible drug problem we have in this
country, then we will continue to use them, as long as they're truthful.
I have no problem using snitches. You have to to prove the cases under
our system of laws.
NARRATOR: By the early '90s, the government was paying
informants or snitches more than $100 million a year. They paid
thousands of others by reducing their sentences. Over the last five
years, nearly a third of the people sentenced in drug-trafficking cases
in the federal system had their sentences reduced because they informed
on other people. Ronald Rankins is one of the informants. He now wants
the world to know why.
RONALD RANKINS: I wrote Janet Reno. I wrote President
Clinton. I wrote Oprah Winfrey. I wrote "60 Minutes." I wrote "Hard
Copy." I wrote "New York Times." I wrote "Mobile Press Register." And
the list just goes on and on and on.
NARRATOR: He wrote claiming that his testimony was coerced.
He was arrested in 1992 and was charged with conspiracy to distribute
crack cocaine and money laundering. He faced life in prison.
RONALD RANKINS: I was a drug user, you know? And I sold drugs
more or less to support my habit, you know? And I wasn't nothing near
what they would call a kingpin or what the judicial system would refer
to as a kingpin.
NARRATOR: His co-defendant was his friend, Algernon Lundy,
RONALD RANKINS: The prosecutor, Donna Barrows, she said, "One
of you is going to receive a life sentence, Mr. Rankins." She said,
"Now, it don't matter to me which one of you receives a life sentence."
She say, "I can assure you the federal government have a 98.6 conviction
rate, and if I tell you you're going to receive a life sentence, you can
call your family and tell them to break your plate because you won't be
coming home again." Those was her words, verbatim.
NARRATOR: He finally took the stand and was the star witness
against his friend, Lonnie Lundy. In exchange, he received a reduced
sentence of 15 years in federal prison. Now he regrets it.
RONALD RANKINS: And as God is my witness, it hurt me to my
heart to take the stand again, like, and sit there and tell all them
INTERVIEWER: But you finally did.
RONALD RANKINS: Let me ask you a question, if I may. If you
was faced with a life sentence right now, and they tell you, "Well, Miss
Ofra, if you don't testify on this guy, your next-door neighbor, that
you seen him selling drugs, we're going to give you a life sentence,
we're going to make you part of this conspiracy and give you a life
sentence," what're you going to do? You going to take that life
INTERVIEWER: Probably not.
RONALD RANKINS: Okay. You human. Everybody's human. No matter
what type of tough exterior they try to represent, you know, people is
human. They're not robots. Regardless to how tough you try to be on the
street and how tough you try to be in prison, when it comes down to it,
them letters, L-I-F-E, it'll put a whole new perspective in the ball
game. You ain't just talking about "One of these days I'm going to be
out of here." The only way you're coming out of here is when you got a
tag on your big toe and no breath left in your body.
GORDON ARMSTRONG III, Defense Attorney: You see it frequently
where people come back years later and say, "Well, I lied then. I lied."
And then the judges and the lawyers who come back years later say,
"Well, are you lying now, or did you lie then? Are you lying now just to
try to help somebody? Are you trying to help somebody out of jail or
help somebody with their appeals?"
INTERVIEWER: How can you tell?
GORDON ARMSTRONG: You can't tell. That's the whole problem.
You don't know and that's- that's the danger of using them from the very
Rep. BILL McCOLLUM (R), Florida: I want to tell you I am much
more concerned about the loss of life to drugs and to the crime that's
going on out there, and the need to stop it and to protect our innocents
and our citizens, than I am about anybody's concern over informants.
Good lord, informants are a way of life in American justice, whether
it's a drug issue or not. How else are we going to find the bad guy?
NARRATOR: In the mid-1980s, the bad guys dominated the news
with a new scourge, crack cocaine.
REPORTER: The newest and one of the deadliest drugs sweeping
the country today is crack, a potent-
REPORTER: Crack is in 25 states coast-to-coast and in every
REPORTER: In New York, crack-smoking is an epidemic.
REPORTER: Police say there may now be as many as 1,200-
REPORTER: -are singing in courts, and the refrain is
NARRATOR: Congress responded immediately by passing new laws
of mandatory minimum sentences that would apply to drug traffickers. The
proposed sentences that became the law of the land were Draconian. They
were clearly directed at the major drug traffickers. People who had
previously been considered minor offenders could now draw 20 years to
life in prison. Parole had already been abolished.
Many judges were appalled, United States District Judge Robert Sweet
ROBERT W. SWEET, U.S. District Court Judge: There are a lot
of people in jail for a lot longer, and a lot of the low-level people
are in jail, as a consequence. And when you start figuring out the
economics of this, it's staggering- I mean, the $25,000 it costs to
build the cell, the $30,000 it costs every year that they're in. And the
bottom line of all of it, if you're talking about social policy, is no
benefit. Who can point to the benefit? Who can point to the value of
these mandatory minimums?
Sen. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: Well, we found- the reason why we
went to mandatory minimums is because of these soft-on-crime judges that
we have in this society, judges who just will not get tough on crime,
get tough especially on pushers of drugs that are killing our youth. And
so that's why the mandatory minimums, so that we set some reasonable
standards within which judges have to rule, rather than allowing them to
just put people out on probation who otherwise are killing our kids.
NARRATOR: The mandatory minimum laws left only one way for
defendants to escape the full force of the sentence: to provide the
government with what the prosecution would deem substantial assistance.
In other words, to inform on someone else. It is an issue which is now
BOB CLARK, Defense Attorney: If I offered a witness a $100
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
Sen. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama, Former U.S. Attorney: There
is no incentive for a person to plead guilty and to confess if there
isn't some benefit from it because usually these co-conspirators are
friends, sometimes even relatives, so they don't want to testify against
them. But if you can say, "You're looking at 10 years, and we'll
recommend 5 years. And we want to give you- you've got to corroborate
your testimony, but you've got to"- you know, "We want you to tell what
you know, where you've been getting your drugs and who you've been
selling your drugs to."
JONATHAN TURLEY, Law Professor, George Washington University:
The sentencing changes created an overwhelming pressure to cooperate,
even to lie.
NARRATOR: Jonathan Turley is a constitutional law professor
at George Washington University. He has worked with Congress on criminal
legislation and has written extensively on sentencing issues.
JONATHAN TURLEY: A first-time drug offender will get a
10-year mandatory minimum without chance of parole in the federal
system. That's a long damn time. And there's no out. You're looking at
an office that has an over 90 percent conviction rate. And if you're
convicted, you spend 10 years, and there's no more parole in the federal
Now, you tell that to a young kid at 18, and it concentrates the
mind. And he asks his lawyer, "What can I do to get out of this?" and
you say, "Well, you have to turn someone in. You've got to cop a plea.
You've got to give them something they want." And they do. And if they
don't know anything, they make it up. And that's the way it works.
And it's not good. It's not good for any of us. But it's the way that
the system more and more seems to operate. We're beginning to become a
society of informants.
NARRATOR: It was with the help of informants that Lula May
Smith of Mobile, Alabama, was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute
drugs. She was in her late 50s when she was sentenced to seven years in
prison, where she had two strokes. She is now under supervised release
until the year 2002.
LULA MAY SMITH: I went in in '89, I got out in January the
10th of '96. There he go, right passing! There he go. There the snitch
go. There he is.
NARRATOR: The man who she says informed on her is now free in
LULA MAY SMITH: Just about every day, if I come out here and
sit down out, and when it's cool on the outside, he walks daily up and
down this street.
BOB CLARK: Lula May Smith was a maid at the Holiday Inn
downtown, a hard-working woman, had worked hard all her life.
NARRATOR: Her defense attorney was Bob Clark.
BOB CLARK: I met Lula because my office is next door to the
Holiday Inn, and she would sometimes- the heat in the kitchen over there
would just get overwhelming, and she'd go out the back door and stand
out for a few minutes to get some fresh air. And that's how I met Lula
NARRATOR: Willy Huntley, former assistant U.S. attorney,
prosecuted the case.
WILLY HUNTLEY, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney: Lula Smith was
the mother of Darren Sharp. Darren Sharp had been identified through an
investigation as being one of the largest crack cocaine dealers in the
Prichard, Alabama, area. She was aware that Darren Sharp didn't have any
income. However, he owned several houses, several automobiles. He was
able to purchase a car for her. He paid cash for it.
BOB CLARK: There's no question about her son being a drug
dealer. Her son, when he found out he was going to be indicted, ran. The
whole time that she was being tried, the government says, "If her son
will come in, we'll dismiss. If her son will come in"- it was just a-
trying a means of extorting her son to come in to give himself up.
That's the only reason they tried Mrs. Smith.
WILLEY HUNTLEY: That's exactly true.
INTERVIEWER: What is exactly true?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: That as part of the conspiracy, her son, who
was at the top, was the primary target.
INTERVIEWER: What would have happened if her son came to you
and gave himself up?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: The case against her probably would have been
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think they were after you?
LULA MAY SMITH: Because they wanted my son just that bad, so
they used me to do what they had to do with him.
INTERVIEWER: So she was a hostage?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: I don't think she was a hostage. If she was a
hostage, it was by her own creation because she chose to ignore the
signs that her son was giving out- no income, and he can buy houses and
clothes and cars and tractor-trailers, and no work.
INTERVIEWER: And should have reported him?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: No, I didn't say she should've done that. I
think she should have said, "Don't come to my house."
NARRATOR: Lula Smith did not tell her son not to come around,
and she didn't question his various acquisitions. She went to trial.
WILLEY HUNTLEY: The trial lasted about 14 days because of the
number of defendants, and all the different counts we had to prove. And
the jury started reading the verdicts, and the first one came out
guilty, and I think Lula's name was way down near the bottom. I think
she was probably the last person that was indicted. And the verdicts
kept coming back, "Guilty," "Guilty," "Guilty."
And the closer we got to her name, the more I kept hoping, "Please
let them say not guilty." They kept saying, "Guilty, "Guilty," "Guilty,"
and getting closer, and I'd pray a little bit harder, saying, "Let them
say not guilty." But it got to her name, and they said "Guilty," too.
And you know the rest of the story.
LULA MAY SMITH: Do I blame Mr. Huntley? If he done admitted
to you that he was sorry that what happened to me, who else could I
blame? Could you answer that one for me?
INTERVIEWER: How do you feel about it now?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: I still say she shouldn't have gone to
INTERVIEWER: She shouldn't have?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: No. I said it then she shouldn't have gone to
INTERVIEWER: You were the prosecutor, and you said it
WILLEY HUNTLEY: I did.
INTERVIEWER: What was the thought process?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: That the jury would find her not guilty.
INTERVIEWER: You hoped?
WILLEY HUNTLEY: I hoped. But I guess I did too good a job.
[www.pbs.org: Read interviews with the prosecutors]
"TONY": There are a lot of prosecutors who don't feel good
about what they're doing. There are prosecutors who say, "I didn't want
this person to go to prison for such a long time, but it's my job."
There are a lot of judges who've said on record, "I did not want to give
that person 10, 20, 30 years in prison, but it's my job!" So if it's a
part of your job, you have to do a good job. You have to put as many
people in prison as you can, whether you want to or not.
JONATHAN TURLEY: You know, there's a bunch of people out
there who are told to arrest as many drug felons as possible. And it
goes to a bunch of people who are told to convict as many drug felons as
possible. And it goes to a bunch of people who are told to incarcerate
as many felons as possible. And all of them have strong incentives
through federal grants and state grants.
Often state prosecutors have the added incentive of politics. When
they stand for election they want to say that they've put in more people
in jail than their predecessors and that their rate of conviction is
even higher this year than it was last. The problem is that these
statistics ultimately come down to people.
NARRATOR: Kathleen Kriete is a businesswoman in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida. She has one child, Joey.
KATHLEEN KRIETE: My sister and I were partners in a family
business. And one afternoon in 1992 I got a phone call from some lawyer
who was at the jailhouse down in Fort Lauderdale to tell me that my son
had been locked up overnight and that he had been caught on a drug- in a
drug deal and that he was going to be spending many, many years in
prison. And it was really that cut-and-dried.
And of course, I was in shock, and I didn't believe it. And my sister
and I have no idea how we got down there. It was very quick. But we went
down there, and there he was- very young, scared to death, beard. And we
had to sit there and wait to bail- bail him out for- you know, post bond
so that we could wait for a trial or whatever we had to do. Had no idea
what happened. Couldn't believe it. This just couldn't happen in our
house. And it did. Sorry.
NARRATOR: Joey's father, James Settembrino, divorced and
re-married, also got a call.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: You have to picture yourself that your-
your son or daughter's in jail. And of course, I'll never forget that-
that night when I got that first telephone call, as he was in jail for
the first evening. It was rather a quick telephone call, and the
shriekingness will live with me till I die, probably, because all he
said was, "I'm here. Get me out. I'll never be able to do 10 years," and
broke down for the first time, and the phone went dead. That's all he
said to me. I'll never forget that.
NARRATOR: It happened in 1992.
JOEY SETTEMBRINO: I was 18 years old, and I'd just graduated
high school. And a friend of mine which I'd known for many years called
me up one day, and he asked me if I could get some drugs for him. It was
funny because I'd never sold drugs before. I had used drugs, but I'd
never sold drugs.
KATHLEEN KRIETE: The night before, we'd had a slight argument
about, you know, "If the insurance isn't paid, the car is going away."
And you know, that's pretty frightening when you're- when you're 18, and
he'd just turned 18. So we- the call came at a good time. He was very
vulnerable, and I guess he said yes.
JOEY SETTEMBRINO: About five days after- five or six days
after we initially spoke, the acid came in. My buddy had it, and he told
me that it was there, and I could come get it. And we went- I went and
picked up my friend, and we were to meet his friend, who he was getting
it for, at a shopping mall.
KATHLEEN KRIETE: When he actually went, got the drugs,
delivered the drugs in a manila envelope, he delivered them to an agent
of the Drug Enforcement group. So he knew. He knew exactly what
happened. You know, he knew that he had been set up. He knew that it was
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any idea what the punishment would
JOEY SETTEMBRINO: No. As a matter of fact, when the cop put
me in the car and he told me I was looking at 25 years, I- I believe I
got a little fresh with him, and I told him I wouldn't do a day. I mean
I honestly felt, "I'm a first-time offender. This is the first time I've
ever been in trouble in my life. You know, I won't- nothing will happen
to me. I won't do any time."
NARRATOR: But it soon became clear that Joey, who was
supposed to have made $500 on the deal, was in real trouble.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: I got an attorney for him, and found out
the severity of it. The attorney told me, he says, "Jim, you know, this-
you don't want to hear this, but he's in bad shape here. He could go to
jail for 30 years." I says, "Thirty years? Are you crazy?" He said,
"Yeah, 30 years." I says, "He's 18 years old." You know, "How can
someone go to jail for 30 years for selling drugs?"
NARRATOR: Before Congress enacted the mandatory minimum
sentences, Joey probably would have received probation. The 1986 federal
laws, passed at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, raised the
stakes enormously. At that time, Eric Sterling was counsel to the
chairman of the House subcommittee on crime and took an active part in
formulating these laws.
ERIC STERLING, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation:
The work that I was involved in, in enacting these mandatory sentences,
is probably the greatest tragedy of my professional life. These laws
came about in an incredible conjunction between politics and
It was 1986. Tip O'Neill comes back from the July 4th district
recess, and everybody's talking about the death of the Boston Celtics
pick, Len Bias. That's all his constituents are talking to him about.
And he has the insight, "Drugs. It's drugs. I can take this issue into
the election." He calls the Democratic leadership together in the House
of Representatives and says, "I want a drug bill. I want it in four
And it set off kind of a stampede. I mean, everybody started trying
to get out front on the drug issue. And- and these were committees- I
mean, every committee, Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Interior and
Insular Affairs. I mean, not just the Judiciary Committee, Foreign
Affairs, Ways and Means, Agriculture. You know Armed Services.
Everybody's got a piece of this out there sort of, you know, fighting to
sort of get their- their face on television talking about the drug
And when we- these mandatories came in the last couple days before
the Congressional recess, before they were all going to race out of town
and, you know, tell the voters about what they're doing to fight the war
on drugs. No hearings, no consideration by the federal judges, no input
from the Bureau of Prisons. I mean, even DEA didn't testify. I mean, the
whole thing was kind of cobbled together with sort of chewing gum and
baling wire. Numbers are picked out of air. And we see what these
consequences are of that kind of legislating.
NARRATOR: As a consequence of this legislation, Joey would
have to spend a minimum of 10 years in prison unless he agreed to set up
his friends. He didn't want to do it.
JOEY SETTEMBRINO: I didn't want to do 10 years in jail, but I
also, you know, didn't want to- didn't want to give up one of my
friends, either. I was kind of torn. I was stuck in the middle.
NARRATOR: His parents were desperate.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: Of course, the first thing is, is that
you'll say to whomever - and in this particular case it was the agents -
"Gee, what can I do to help my son?" And of course they tell you real
quick what you can do. They say to you, "Well, you know, if you work
with the government, the government will turn around and favorably help
you get a reduction."
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: Well, meaning that I would go out and try
to set someone else up to help my son.
NARRATOR: The Settembrino family was surprised to learn that
information about any drug dealers could help reduce Joey's sentence.
And if Joey wouldn't cooperate, someone else could do it for him.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: They say to you, "If you can do this, find
people that have drugs and purchase drugs from them, we'll act favorably
in giving your son a 5k1 reduction." And I said, "Well, why would you do
that?" "Well, you want your son to get reduced, right?" I said, "Yes."
"We want convictions, and that's why we do it."
NARRATOR: Jim Boma, assistant U.S. attorney, confirmed the
arrangement in a letter. Jim Settembrino would try to render cooperation
to the government on behalf of his son. If successful, the government
would look favorably on filing a 5k1 motion on behalf of Joey- in other
words, reduce his sentence. Now in Denver, Colorado, Jim Boma did not
feel that it was an unusual arrangement.
JIM BOMA, Assistant U.S. Attorney: I don't find it logically
absurd. I'm sorry. I just don't find any real flaw in that. I guess the
bottom line is that we're trying to gather information so that we can
prosecute narcotics traffickers. And if someone's willing to try to help
us, and also it would benefit the person being charged, I'm going to
more than meet them halfway.
NARRATOR: Jim Settembrino would spend the next few months
trying to set up drug dealers.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: I tried to find people who were dealing in
drugs by finding people who were using drugs, but it was kind of
difficult, very, very difficult. No one would sell to me. Many, many
occasions that I tried to, but they just looked at me like, "You're the
wrong type. You don't look the part. Something's wrong." And I- I never
was able to make a single sale from it.
NARRATOR: Then, unexpectedly, he thought he had a break.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: I met a fellow in New York who had been
through this with his daughter. He says, "I know what they want, and
I've got some good connections." And I says, "And you can help?" And he
said, "Yes, but it'll cost you." "So how much will it cost?" "Well, I'll
have to make some calls. I'll be back with you in a couple of days."
He called back and it was $70,000. At that time, I didn't have
$70,000 dollars, but I did have a house, so I mortgaged it.
NARRATOR: The money was paid to an informant who identified a
South American smuggler who was bringing drugs into the country. Jim
Settembrino, accompanied by a DEA agent, would then pretend to buy the
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: We had everything all set up. And then
Boma called my attorney, David Bogenschutz, and David called me from his
car phone and said, "Jim, we got a problem." I said, "What's the
problem?" He said, "Well, the problem is, is that Mr. Boma is unhappy" -
that's the prosecutor was unhappy with my filing. "And I got him on the
other line right now."
NARRATOR: The filing was a routine legal appeal for a
reduction of sentence that had to be filed by a certain date, if at all.
Jim Boma, the prosecutor, objected.
JIM BOMA: Basically, people have to pick which horse they
want to ride. Do they want to ride the cooperation horse, or do they
want to proceed with the appeal? If our office has to write an appeal,
then that costs the taxpayers money. So someone gets a choice. Either
you cooperate and take your chances. or you can appeal.
NARRATOR: Mr. Boma then reneged on the deal, stressing that
his new decision was now irreversible. Settembrino was crushed.
JAMES SETTEMBRINO: I says, "Well, what's that have to do with
our deal? Why are you taking such offense?" "We got no deal. We got no
deal. I'm not doing it. I'm not helping you. You're not helping me. You
shouldn't have had him file that. We had deals working. Now we got no
deal. I don't care if your son stays in jail for 10 or 20 years. It
makes no difference to me." And he hung up the phone.
NARRATOR: Once they lost the federal prosecutor's good will,
there was nothing else Joey's parents could do for him. They had spent
more than $100,000, and Joey is now serving the 6th of his 10-year
mandatory minimum sentence, which judge himself pronounced
"excessive."[www.pbs.org: Further details on Joey's case]
JOEY SETTEMBRINO: They say that they want to get the big guy,
they want to get the big fish, and that's why they go about getting all
these little fish, because eventually you get the big fish. But what
they don't realize is that when the big fish finally gets caught, he
tells on the little fish, and he's free. And I think that's what makes
the system very, very messed up.
KATHLEEN KRIETE: I think that Joe made a mistake. I think
that Joe knows he made a mistake. I don't think anybody's doubted that.
But nobody's ever, that I've ever talked to- and I've talked to over a
thousand people, so this isn't just a mother talking. Nobody's ever said
that he should do 10 years for what happened.
NARRATOR: The mandatory minimum sentences were criticized by
the Congressional Sentencing Commission as early as 1991. In this
report, the commission found that all defense lawyers and nearly half of
the prosecutors queried had serious problems with mandatory minimums
sentences. Most of the judges pronounced them "manifestly unjust."
Others were less decisive.
JEFF SESSIONS: The Federal system is a very effective system
to prosecute criminal cases, and it does a good job at it. You can argue
whether the guidelines are too severe or not. I think that's a debatable
issue, and I'm perfectly willing to discuss that. But if the guidelines
called for a certain sentence, I expected my prosecutors to tell the
judge the truth and let the judge sentence.
NARRATOR: But the mandatory minimums, in effect, deprived
judges of their discretion to sentence, and many were critical.
Judge ROBERT W. SWEET: It's a travesty, quite frankly. It's
probably the most important- one of the most important functions a judge
has: assess the defendant, assess the crime, assess the society and try
to reach a just result. I think that's the way the system ought to work,
but because of the mandatory minimums, it doesn't.
NARRATOR: The 1991 report particularly criticized the
transfer of power in courts from judges - who are supposed to be
impartial - to prosecutors, who are not.
JONATHAN TURLEY: A prosecutor builds a case, that case is
supposed to be built on true evidence. But there's always a tendency to
fill in gaps, and those gaps are often filled in with informers. What's
remarkable is that most criminal cases have people with incredibly low
levels of credibility, people who would clearly say most anything to get
out of a problem. And we have a system that's becoming so coercive that
even ordinary people may end up doing the most extraordinary things in
order to get out of that system.
PATRICK HALLINAN, Defense Attorney: You know, when you have a
war, there's only one point in a war, and that's to win. So whatever
impedes victory, you throw out and get out of the way. And so this war
on drugs has led to corruption of the American justice system. It's led
to a corroding of the moral fiber of this country. And I don't mean the
drugs, I mean the kind of things where you can call the wife to testify
against the husband, when you can threaten the child to testify against
the father. I mean those sort of things. And yes, this is- this is part
of the war on drugs.
NARRATOR: Patrick Hallinan, a well-known criminal defense
attorney in San Francisco, has had his own experience in the war on
PATRICK HALLINAN: I had a client who had come and seen me
several times over a period of, well, almost 20 years. And every time he
got in some trouble, he'd come and see me and I'd represent him. And
then, in the late '80s, he got in trouble which was big trouble. And he
was being investigated by a United States grand jury out of Reno as the
head of and one of the directors of a major smuggling operation of Thai
NARRATOR: The client was Ciro Mancuso, a successful building
contractor who lived in Squaw Valley, Nevada. In the late '80s, he was
accused of being the mastermind of a $140 million marijuana-smuggling
PATRICK HALLINAN: In preparing the case, it became very
evident to us that they were going to convict him. And when that became
evident, I said to Mancuso, I said, "Ciro, you know, they're going to
convict you, and the punishment's going to be awful. We have to make
some deal for you." And so he said, "Go ahead and make it." He never did
admit to me that he really did the things that he was charged with, but
he said, "Go ahead and make the deal."
NARRATOR: Once the deal was made, it was DEA agent Ron Davis
and his partner, Rich Pierce, who debriefed Mancuso and began working
with him. He was more than pleased with the results.
RON DAVIS: One could not ask more from the person who has
cooperated. He was very a credible, very believable individual. He was
very articulate and had very detailed information, and he fulfilled the
commitment to the government and more.
NARRATOR: For four and a half years, Ciro Mancuso worked hard
for the government.
CIRO MANCUSO: I can't think of anything possibly that I could
have done for them that I didn't do. It was implied that if my
cooperation went well, that that was my part of it, and then that their
part of it was to go to the judge and to make sure that I was fairly
treated- in other words, that vast, tremendous consideration would be
given to what I had done at time of sentencing.
NARRATOR: The cooperation went very well. Drugs were seized,
and many arrests were made.
RON DAVIS: As a result of his cooperation, we indicted, I
believe, between another 20 and 25 other defendants. And I believe we
seized off another $10 million to $15 million in drug assets.
NARRATOR: Then in August, 1993, with their own cameras
rolling, the DEA made one more bust.
PATRICK HALLINAN: I was working in my library, and I saw
these two figures come out of the kitchen and up the few stairs into the
library. And they had machine guns. And they ordered me on the floor,
and I thought, "My God, they're going to rob the house." And then they
stood up, and I saw across their chest "DEA," and I realized that these
were the cops, and I had this feeling of relief. And then it dawned on
me that they weren't there by accident
NARRATOR: Implicated by Mancuso, Patrick Hallinan was
indicted and arrested.
INTERVIEWER: What you were accused of?
PATRICK HALLINAN: Well, I was accused in three separate
indictments. Each one got worse and worse and worse, so that in the
first one I was- I was really accused as being the consiglieri of this
marijuana-smuggling ring. In the last indictment, I was charged under
RICO with a racketeering- a racketeering charge, which would have put me
in prison for the rest of my life. And when you read that indictment, it
sounded like I was the capo who was doing the smuggling and planning the
operations and marketing the goods. It was ludicrous, but deadly. It was
RON DAVIS, Former DEA Agent: No federal prosecutor would have
gone forward on a prosecution against Mr. Hallinan if he did not believe
that Mr. Mancuso was telling the truth. This support of going forward to
indict Mr. Hallinan was agreed at the highest level in the U.S.
Attorney's office, all the way back to main Justice.
NARRATOR: Defense attorneys saw this as a case of a
dangerously overreaching prosecution.
JOHN KEKER, Defense Attorney: The war between prosecutors and
defense lawyers ebbs and flows, but there are some fanatic prosecutors
who believe that people who represent people accused of crime are the
same as the people who are accused of crime. And they do not understand
either their function or criminal defense lawyers' functions, so they
think that going after and intimidating criminal defense lawyers is a
good thing for fighting crime.
NARRATOR: John Keker, one of the best criminal defense
attorneys in the country, represented Patrick Hallinan.
JOHN KEKER: Patrick, after learning the evidence, decided and
advised his client that the best thing was to make an agreement with the
government. Patrick turned him over to the government, and Ciro quickly
figured out that what the government would be most interested in is if
he could produce for them the head of a well-known criminal defense
CIRO MANCUSO: I was put under to tremendous pressure to
cooperate with the government, including having a direct threat made -
and threats followed up on - to indict my wife. We had two small
children. I was told that my wife would be indicted. She could very
easily get a long prison term, and my children wouldn't have anybody to
DAVID FECHHEIMER, Private Investigator: Well, Mancuso was in
a terrible spot. Regardless of whether or not you think he deserved to
be in that spot, from his perspective he was in a tight spot, and he'd
been offered a way to lessen his pain. And the way to lessen his pain
was to serve up Patrick Hallinan.
NARRATOR: Private investigator David Fechheimer was hired to
help build the case for the defense.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you suppose the government wanted
DAVID FECHHEIMER: Patrick was among the most successful
defense lawyers of his generation in northern California. He'd been a
thorn in the government's side. He was rich. He was well known. He had a
famous name. He lived in a fancy house. He was just the kind of trophy
that these agents wanted.
NARRATOR: Patrick Hallinan came from a prominent and
controversial family. His parents, Vivian and Vincent, were known
radical activists. Vincent Hallinan was one of the most famous lawyers
on the West Coast. He was a friend of the left and of labor, and he
represented controversial figures in the political arena. His battles
with the government were legendary. In 1952 he ran for president on the
Progressive Party ticket. His eldest son, Patrick, would also become
visible and controversial.
JOHN KEKER, Defense Attorney: You could prosecute marijuana
dealers all your life and nobody will have ever heard of you. If you
prosecute some well-known criminal defense lawyer, you'll be famous.
NARRATOR: Patrick Hallinan's trial started on January 26th,
1995, in Reno, Nevada, and lasted seven weeks. Ciro Mancuso was the star
CIRO MANCUSO: My testimony about Mr. Hallinan was pretty much
limited to obstruction-of-justice-type charges and money laundering.
NARRATOR: Yet he testified that Hallinan was the virtual
consigliere of his cartel, and that he gave his stamp of approval to
everything Mancuso did.
DAVID FECHHEIMER: Yes, he did get on the witness stand. And
yes, he did say everything he'd agreed to say about Hallinan, but no one
believed him. And Hallinan was not convicted.
NARRATOR: After seven weeks, it took the jury less than five
hours to find Patrick Hallinan not guilty. Mancuso was blamed for the
loss of the case.
CIRO MANCUSO: The prosecution lost. And being on their team,
the blame for that, I believe, was shifted as much as possible to me.
And at that point, the betrayal set in.
RON DAVIS: And then the government did a 180, so to speak, on
their commitment towards Mr. Mancuso, basically holding him accountable
for the loss of that trial. So they successfully did discredit him by
calling him a liar. And as a person who was responsible for that
investigation, I was also expendable.
NARRATOR: Ron Davis chose early retirement. The Justice
Department and the prosecution distanced themselves from the case.
Mancuso, who hoped for probation, got nine years in prison.
CIRO MANCUSO: I believe that had the prosecution won the case
and gotten a conviction against Mr. Hallinan that I would not have come
back to prison at all.
PATRICK HALLINAN: And me, I'd have been in deep trouble. The
charges for which I was- the charges that I was confronting carried a
potential life sentence, a minimum of 19 years. They would have picked
me up at that table, from the table where I was sitting and put me in a
jail, and I wouldn't have gotten out for 19 years.
NARRATOR: Hallinan was exonerated, but he had spent three
years of mental anguish and lost a $1.5 million. As a rule, the
government does not take on rich, powerful lawyers. In fact, they don't
take on very many powerful drug lords, either. In another report issued
in 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that only 11 percent of
federal drug trafficking defendants were major traffickers. More than
half were low-level offenders.
ERIC STERLING, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation:
Fifteen thousand federal drug cases a year, the bulk of them
mandatory-minimum cases, most of them minor offenders. Only 10 percent
of all the federal drug cases are high-level traffickers. You know, you
wonder, like, who's asleep at the switch at the Justice Department?
NARRATOR: But the Justice Department and the U.S. attorneys
must enforce the laws created by Congress, and Congress wants them
Sen. ORRIN HATCH: In all honesty, I think that when you have
people who are pushing drugs on our kids, and that they are pushing
significant amounts of drugs on our kids or pushing at all, we ought to
get as tough as nails on them. And I don't think that- in many respects,
we ought to lock them up and throw away the keys.
JONATHAN TURLEY, Law Professor, George Washington University:
Right now our population, our jail population, is larger than five of
our states. Now, that is a costly war. We are fast approaching a society
not just of informers, but we are turning into a criminalized society
where a remarkably high number of our population is either in jail or
trying to put the other people in jail.
NARRATOR: How the drug laws affect the life of a community
can be seen in Mobile, Alabama, which has one of the highest federal
drug conviction rates in the country. Take the case of number 33.
Clarence Aaron was a 23-year-old student and a promising athlete at
Southern University Louisiana. His home was Mobile. He was the only one
of Linda Aaron's three children who went to college.
LINDA AARON: I've always did domestic work, you know, and
I've worked all my life, but I just couldn't afford to send none of them
to college. And his granddaddy sent him to college, so-
NARRATOR: His father, Martin Clarence Aaron, is a musician
and a personal trainer.
MARTIN AARON: He was the only one that was in college at the
time this occurred. He was- he was trying to get an education, trying to
better his self. The only one in this whole mess that was doing
something positive with the clean- squeaky-clean background was Clarence
Aaron. And he is the fall guy out of this whole mess.
NARRATOR: Clarence Aaron was accused of conspiring with
friends to distribute crack cocaine. He went to trial and was convicted.
He was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences without the
possibility of parole. He started serving his sentence in 1992.
CLARENCE AARON: I just couldn't believe that when the judge
told me that- three life sentences running concurrent. When he said
that, I was setting in my chair, and I was thinking to myself, I say,
"Where in the world do I suppose to start doing three life sentences at?
Where am I supposed to start at, in the middle, at the end part of it,
where?" I just couldn't believe that this was occurring to me. All I'd
seen my whole life, everything that I had strived and stayed out of
trouble for all my life, go down the drain, you know?
LINDA AARON: Honestly, I expected for them to give him
probation - I really did - for the part that he played in this. That's
what I was looking for, at least- at least some years on paper, that's
all. Nothing else. Because when they gave him life without parole, it
literally killed me. I didn't even exist anymore because I couldn't
understand it. I said, "How in the world could these people sit here and
just take a young man's life away like that, 23 years old, try to take
his whole life away from him for something that they know"- and they
know, it too. They know they coaxed all those boys to say what they
said. They know that. How can they do that?
NARRATOR: The boys were Clarence's friends from high school
and his first cousin with whom he grew up. The friends were involved in
dealing drugs. Clarence introduced them to people he knew in Baton Rouge
who were also involved in drugs. He drove them from one city to the
other, accompanied by his cousin, and was paid $1,500 for his help.
MARTIN AARON: Traveling with the wrong person, the wrong
crowd, he's guilty. Of being with people going on certain trips, he's
guilty. But so far as the picture that they try to paint him for, he's
not guilty. And he's not- and he don't deserve to be punished as if he's
some dope kingpin. They- the sentencing that they gave him was as if he
was a dope kingpin. This guy didn't even have a brand-new car.
NARRATOR: Dennis Knizley was Clarence's defense lawyer.
DENNIS KNIZLEY, Defense Attorney: Clarence Aaron was one of
the worst cases I've ever had. Clarence tells me that the FBI came to
his college classroom and pulled him out of the classroom and arrested
him for possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
What makes it the worst case I ever had was there was absolutely no
cocaine introduced into evidence. There was no cocaine seen. Nobody- the
police had no cocaine. The FBI had no cocaine. There was no scientific
evidence, no fingerprints, nothing. The entire case was based upon the
testimony of what they call "cooperating individuals."
NARRATOR: The cooperating individuals were Clarence Aaron's
friends from high school and his first cousin. When the friends were
finally caught dealing drugs, they all, including the cousin, turned
informant and testified against Clarence. They all had prior criminal
records, and they were all facing life in prison. Clarence was the only
one with no record and no hard evidence of any sort.
The U.S. attorney's office in downtown Mobile prosecuted the case. J.
Don Foster is the U.S. attorney for the southern district of
J. DON FOSTER, U.S. Attorney: Well, do you understand that he
arranged for the purchase of some nine kilograms of cocaine? Can you
imagine how much damage nine kilograms of cocaine, or converted to
crack, can do in a community or in this country? Nine kilograms.
DENNIS KNIZLEY: There was not any cocaine found anywhere, and
certainly no cocaine was never put on any scale to weigh to say, "Okay
it was this much cocaine, which then support this"- simply and totally,
the entirety of the witnesses against him were people who were
exchanging their testimony for their liberty.
ERIC STERLING, President Criminal Justice Policy Foundation:
There don't have to be drugs. People are amazed. "Well, aren't there
drugs?" There don't have to be drugs. All there have to be are witnesses
who say, "I saw drugs" or "He said there were drugs."
NARRATOR: There don't have to be drugs because in federal
cases oral testimony is enough. So when a small technical amendment to
the mandatory minimums was issued in 1988, it created a huge change in
the prosecution of drug offenders. The conspiracy amendment stipulated
that the lowest person in a so-called drug conspiracy could be punished
with the maximum sentence designed for a kingpin.
ERIC STERLING: If the mandatory minimums were a result of
haste and excess by Congress, "conspiracy" as applied to these
mandatories was completely by oversight and by accident. It was
submitted as part of a simple "technical corrections" amendment. No one
even thought at all about what the implications were of applying
NARRATOR: Its implications were enormous and would change
thousands of lives.
ERIC STERLING: Mandatory minimums designed for kingpins with
very long sentences, conspiracy bringing in the lowest level offenders
who become eligible for those. The only way they can avoid those
mandatories is to provide substantial assistance to a prosecutor. And if
it means telling a wild story to avoid spending almost life in prison
without parole, there are many people who will do that.
NARRATOR: Defense attorneys had their work cut out for
GORDON ARMSTRONG III, Defense Attorney: There is no case
that's not a conspiracy case. If I possessed it, I had to get it from
somebody or somewhere, so technically I conspired to get it. Every case
is a conspiracy case, but conspiracy cases are much easier to prove.
BOB CLARK, Defense Attorney: We can call each other on the
phone and make an agreement. Once the agreement's made, 30 minutes later
you say, "Well, no, I don't think I want to do that," and call it off,
you've already committed a criminal offense by making the agreement.
INTERVIEWER: You can be indicted?
BOB CLARK: You can be indicted and sent to prison.
INTERVIEWER: How many witnesses do you need to indict
somebody and convict them?
LYN HILLMAN-CAMPBELL, Assistant Federal Defender: Under the
conspiracy law, you only need one. So one person says you're a drug
dealer, you could get convicted and go to jail.
INTERVIEWER: That's it? I can put you in jail tomorrow like
GORDON ARMSTRONG: If the government thought I was involved in
drugs, and you told them I was involved, then I would probably get
indicted. It's that easy.
Sen. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Well, you have to be
careful. A good prosecutor must always be careful, and if there's not
corroboration on the testimony of a co-conspirator drug dealer, you
should not proceed with the case. You should have absolute confidence
that the facts given to you are true or you should not proceed.
NARRATOR: Yet after the conspiracy amendment was enacted, the
prison population swelled. Within six years, the number of drug cases in
federal prisons increased by 300 percent. From 1986 to 1998, it was up
by 450 percent. Not only were there more prisoners, but they were
serving much longer sentences as a result of conspiracy charges.
[www.pbs.org: More on the laws and statistics]
costs were also rising. Charged with being involved in a drug
conspiracy, Dorothy Gaines is serving a 20-year sentence.
DOROTHY GAINES: "Conspiracy" is so broad. Anyone can get
caught up in conspiracy- just knowing someone. That's what I constantly
tell my kids- just being around someone. But it don't take 20 years to
learn your mistake. I know that I got caught up by being associated.
NARRATOR: Dorothy Gaines agrees that she did not always keep
very good company. Several times in her life she was involved with men
who either used or dealt drugs. When one of them was caught, he
implicated her in exchange for a reduced sentence. When the case was
thrown out of state court for lack of evidence, the federal government
picked it up and added a charge of conspiracy with a drug-smuggling
When she went to trial, her children were certain she'd be
NATASHA GAINES: I figured my mother would get a "Not guilty"
verdict. There was no evidence. There were four people on trial with
her, and everybody was putting evidence on. "Well, this is exhibit A or
exhibit B for this defendant or for this defendant." There was never any
evidence placed on the table or bar for Dorothy Gaines.
NARRATOR: Forty-year-old Dorothy, mother of three and
grandmother of two, was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in
prison. Her then 20-year-old daughter, Natasha, had to leave college and
become the head of the family.
NATASHA GAINES: I had to become Mother. I had to reverse from
sister to mother because I had to take on my sister and brother. I was
at an age at that time that I'd learned to do for myself. They didn't.
They were 11 and 10 years old.
DOROTHY GAINES: Both of them have failed twice since I've
been locked up. That's the big worry. They tell me all the time that
they are doing the time. "Mamma, when are you coming home?"
NARRATOR: They've pinned their hopes on her appeal lawyer,
Lyn Campbell, who firmly believes in her client's innocence.
LYN HILLMAN-CAMPBELL: I've read all of the evidence in the
case, the entire trial, and there's, like, a little voice in the back of
my head that says, "Wait a minute. There's just nothing here." It's just
these five drug dealers, and who have, you know, great, big reasons not
to tell the truth. You know, some of them had guns when they were caught
and weren't prosecuted for the guns- you know, extensive criminal
histories, everything. And you've got this lady who has no criminal
history to speak of. She doesn't have two nickels to rub together. And
it just doesn't make sense to me.
NARRATOR: U.S. attorney J. Don Foster reviewed the case.
J. DON FOSTER: From my review of the record in this case,
there is no doubt in my mind about her guilt. She knew a lot about what
was going on. Whether she knew absolutely everything, I don't know. But
she knew enough to be on the board of directors, in effect.
INTERVIEWER: Because the co-conspirators said so?
J. DON FOSTER: Confirmed by other witnesses.
LYN HILLMAN-CAMPBELL: Well, I guess if you call getting five
guys in a room and saying, "Well, is that true what he said? Is that
true what he said?"- I mean, that's pretty much the way they
corroborate. When I think of corroboration, I think hard evidence, phone
records, beeper records, unexplained money. You know, it doesn't take a
lot to corroborate that someone's a drug dealer. But when you don't have
any of those things, and you see it in case after case after case, how
easy it is to come up with that stuff- you know, a snitch corroborating
a snitch is not corroboration, to me.
NARRATOR: Bob Clark, a well-known and outspoken defense
lawyer in Mobile, Alabama, will not represent snitches.
BOB CLARK: Snitches are used by the government because it
makes their life a lot easier. You put everybody in prison, and then you
cut deals with those that are willing to rat on everybody else. And
people generally tell the government what they want to hear. In fact,
when they try people here in the southern district of Alabama, they put
all the rats and the snitches together in one cell. And after they
testify, they go back to the snitch cell and compare stories and compare
NARRATOR: In the case of Dorothy Gaines, her lawyer moved for
a mistrial when he learned that the informants who testified against her
were returning to their holding cell, comparing notes. The judge found
that as long as the witnesses assured him that they did not discuss
their testimony, he couldn't see any problem with that. The motion was
J. DON FOSTER, U.S. Attorney: If the judge tells them not to
talk and they talk, they're in violation of the judge's order. And the
judge does tell them not to talk with each other, does tell them not to
tell each other what they're going to- what they have testified to. So
if they've- if they obey the judge's orders, which they certainly should
do, they're not going to be doing that.
BOB CLARK: [laughs] 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'll say anything. They're prostitutes. I
mean it is- 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 mean absolutely unbelievable abuse.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you believe these people? I mean, they're
felons, they have everything to gain.
J. DON FOSTER: Well, you can be sure that defense attorneys
remind juries of that every chance they get. They are- the juries are
bombarded with the fact that these people are criminals themselves and
that they may be trying to help themselves out by testifying, but it's
hard to make up a story that fools 12 people.
ERIC STERLING: We believe in the presumption of innocence, as
a society. Once you get in the courtroom, that presumption is very, very
thin. It's not a whole lot of protection. And when you have a witness
who says, "Yes, I am getting a deal, but I was there, and this is what
the defendant did," jurors will say, "Well, he must"- you know, "Even if
I don't believe all that he's saying, I believe enough of it, and that
enough is proof beyond a reasonable doubt for me."
NARRATOR: Tony told us that in his experience, not only can
juries be misled, but that informants often mislead the prosecutors.
"TONY": I would like to believe that the majority of the
prosecutors are using witnesses they believe to be telling the truth.
The problem is, they have no idea if they're telling the truth.
For example, when I was in prison, I was asked to cooperate in a case
that would have been very dangerous to my family. It would have possibly
gotten them killed, and I told the government I couldn't do it. So I
mentioned this to my cellmate, that there was this case that was
probably my ticket to walk out the door, and I told him I couldn't do
it. And he said, "Are you crazy?" He said, "If you can't do it, I'll do
it. Just get me some details about the case and get me a picture of this
guy, and I'll call the government, and I'll tell them that I've been
doing business with him."
If I would have gone along with that, he would have all the
information which I had, plus any information that he wanted to make up.
He would have all the details. He would have a photograph so he could
identify the guy, and he probably would have gotten himself out of
prison with this testimony. And informants do that all the time.
ERIC STERLING: The entire criminal justice system knows that
perjury is the coin of the realm. In New York City, police officers call
it "testalying." In Los Angeles, they call it "the liars club." Lying-
everybody knows that lying takes place. The prosecutors don't feel bad
about it. This is simply part of the system. They justify it by saying,
"We have to get the bad guy."
NARRATOR: In Uniontown, Alabama, getting the bad guy turned
out to involve the whole community. Almost every family was affected
when the government indicted more than 70 people, accusing them of
conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 150 kilograms of
1st WOMAN IN CHURCH: My name is Christine Johnson. I'm a
friend of Leroy Williams. He was sentenced for 13 years on drug
conspiracy charges. There were no drugs found in our home.
2nd WOMAN IN CHURCH: I am Ernie Strother's wife. He's serving
13 years for conspiracy
3rd WOMAN IN CHURCH: My brother, Thelbert Staton, is waiting
to be sentenced on conspiracy charges. He wasn't even searched. No drugs
SALLY McGEE: My name is Sally McGee. I have four brothers
incarcerated for drug conspiracy, but they did not find any drugs the
morning that they picked these guys up.
NARRATOR: In the early morning of May 29, 1997, a small army
of state and federal agents descended on Uniontown, a small rural
community of fewer than 2,000 people in southern Alabama. They arrested
more than 70 people, charging them with conspiracy to posses with intent
to distribute cocaine.
GORDON ARMSTRONG: If you listen to their arguments, if you
listen to the amounts that they claimed was involved, the dollar
figures, the sources coming in from California, from Texas, from Miami,
Detroit, the different areas, you would think that this was a hub,
basically, where everything was shipped into and then moved back out
NARRATOR: With so many people indicted, Gordon Armstrong from
Mobile, Alabama, was one of the lawyers, mostly appointed by the court
to represent the accused.
GORDON ARMSTRONG: Once you see what the evidence turned out
to be, and you met the people involved, there's no way that that dollar
figure and those amounts were possible.
NARRATOR: Yet it was hailed by the government as one of the
greatest drug crackdowns in Alabama's history, a result of an intense
investigation based on the help of informants.
WOMAN IN CHURCH: If these people have that many drugs in
Uniontown, and they didn't get the drugs- they have all these
confidential informants, why didn't they get the drugs along with the
1st MAN IN CHURCH: They charged all of us with a 150-key
conspiracy, but yet and still they didn't have no 150 keys. Well, well
where's the dope? If everybody had dope, where is it?
2nd MAN IN CHURCH: This town ain't but that big, and they
make it seem like this is Florida, where all the kilos coming in at.
There wasn't nothing here. Wasn't nothing here.
NARRATOR: What was there were a few drug dealers who were
caught, pled guilty and turned informant. The main one was 23-year-old
GORDON ARMSTRONG: He was the stereotypical person that you
would think of when you thought drug dealer. He had the cars and the
jewelry, and he had the AK-47, the Chinese assault weapon. And he'd-
he'd been shot three times in drug deals. He had ordered somebody shot
who had disrespected him. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Obviously, he had most of the evidence against him. So he went down, and
he testified and, basically, he was able to buy some freedom.
J. DON FOSTER, U.S. Attorney: We try to go up the ladder, if
we can, starting with the little fish and going up the ladder to the big
fish. But sometimes you've got the big fish, and you need to come down
the ladder. So it just works however it fits for that particular
NARRATOR: In Uniontown, once they got the big fish, Cedric
Jones, he rolled over and informed on the smaller fish. Cedric let it be
known that he would snitch on his own mother if it would help him. His
mother wasn't indicted, but his uncles were.
In trial after trial, Cedric implicated his family, friends and
acquaintances. How much of what he said was true is an open question.
Sally McGee is Cedric's aunt.
SALLY McGEE: Is he telling the truth to the government? I
can't see any truth to what he's saying, if he's calling us constantly
saying "They're telling me what to say. And I have to please them, I got
to help myself."
NARRATOR: Whether the informants were truthful or not, their
testimony was proof enough for many families to lose their properties
through the forfeiture law.
LYN HILLMAN-CAMPBELL, Assistant Federal Defender: They say
you're a drug dealer, and you have a house, it's gone. I mean
forfeitures- it's not even beyond a reasonable doubt. It's a very low
burden of proof, and all they have to say is it's more likely than not
that you used your house in a drug deal, and your house is gone. It's
more likely than not that you used your car in a drug deal, and your car
is gone. It's more likely than not that your account is drug proceeds,
and your bank account is gone.
NARRATOR: There wasn't much all that much to take in
Uniontown, but farm equipment, livestock and properties were seized.
Sally and Charlie McGee's new house had cost them $90,000, both their
life's savings. The government was suspicious.
SALLY McGEE: They had us to go down- had me, rather, to go
down and testify before the grand jury. They questioned me as to what
kind of work we did and how long we had been working and this that and
NARRATOR: Sally McGee is a teacher. Her husband, Charles, is
a retired NCO in the Army.
CHARLIE McGEE: I've been in the military most of my life
because I went in at an early age, I came out at an early age. So that's
all I ever knew was the military. It's an insult. It's really a insult.
For the government to- if they come to me, it's an insult.
SALLY McGEE: And I've taught 18 years- no kids, no fancy
lifestyle. I'm just plain Sally. And I had to explain how we managed to
accumulate what we got, the little we've got. And to be honest, I was
taught as a child from growing up to start saving, put away. Worked in
the cotton field, picked okra. We farmed.
I mean, I know what it means to sow the corn, to help take care of
the cows that my deceased father left that the government came and took,
all of that. I know what it means to drink out of a jelly jar. I know
what it means to eat out of a tin pan. I know how to save, trust me. Ask
my husband. I don't need any kind of fancy lifestyle. I know nothing but
saving and working hard all of my life. And then, you know, the
government has the nerve to ask how did we get this.
WOMAN IN CHURCH: Over 80 percent of the people, the residents
here, work. I don't care what kind of job they work, they work. And
that's the American dream, is to work and accumulate the same thing that
you see everyone else have. Here, if you own one house and you drive a
nice car, you have to be selling drugs. If you try to get your own
business started, like many of the people, you have to be selling drugs.
Even though they found out that these cars were financed, these houses
were financed, these trucks were financed, they still took them.
YOUNG MAN IN CHURCH: How can you come in and take farm
equipment that was left from grandfathers and borrowed from people here
and people there? How can the government come in and just take this
LYN HILLMAN-CAMPBELL: It's a very, very easy thing for them
to do, especially when they've got- you know, snitches come in, and you
get convicted, and then all of the sudden you're a convicted drug
dealer. Well, of course you were dealing drugs, you know, out of your
house. Your house is gone.
YOUNG MAN IN CHURCH: How can you take three people's
testimony and corral a whole bunch of other people? Like I said, certain
people that they said were bringing the drugs in, those people are still
riding around like there ain't nothing happened. You know, come to the
club, go to the corner. They don't care. They're still free. But
everybody else they done rodeoed, and they locked up, hurt many people's
GORDON ARMSTRONG: It doesn't make a lot of sense to a lot of
people. It really doesn't. It might look good on paper, but in real life
the way it works out is an awful lot of people are getting an awful lot
of jail time based on the word of other people and without a lot of real
proof, just based on snitches.
ELAINE ALFORD: [preaching in church] We have in
Mobile, Alabama, a population of about 200,000, and guess what? The
records are so staggering that I don't even want to go into numbers
because that means nothing!
NARRATOR: Mobile, Alabama, has the highest percentage of
informants in the country. Elaine Alford is a pastor of a small church
whose members are deeply affected by these statistics.
ELAINE ALFORD: What bothers me the most is that the law puts
these young men in a position to snitch on each other. And they'll make
them say things, put such fear in them and make them say things, you
know, cause them to snitch on people that have been friends and family.
That's, I guess, the most profound thing is that family members are
telling lies on family members in order to save themselves.
NARRATOR: That's what happened to Linda Aaron's son,
Clarence, when his first cousin turned informant and testified against
him, helping to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
LINDA AARON: It tore the whole family up. Everybody. I
couldn't believe it. You know, why would he say the things that he said
about Clarence, and he knew that they wasn't true? And then I couldn't
even understand why he could even testify against his own cousin, and
tell- and tell a lie. If it was the truth, I could have understood it.
But it wasn't. None of it was the truth. He was just trying to save his
MARTIN AARON: This is my nephew. This is my sister's child.
This is my son's first cousin. They was raised together, from children.
I mean, you can imagine what this does to a family.
LINDA AARON: It tore the whole family up. It even tore me and
his father up. That's the reason why I'm not with him right now.
MARTIN AARON: That's what the emotional strain had done to
her, some woman I had been with for 30 years. We had stayed together and
raised all our children from birth, but because of what happened to
Clarence, the trial, it destroyed everything.
DENNIS KNIZLEY, Defense Attorney: Drug dealers, they're going
to testify against anybody. It doesn't matter who it is. And if Clarence
Aaron is out there, and they knew him from childhood, whether they-
whether what they say is true or untrue, they're going to find somebody
to testify against because if they can't find somebody to testify
against, they can't get out of the life without parole. They can't get
out of the 360 months to life. They've got to have somebody to testify
against. And if they're sitting in jail, they're just going to
manufacture the testimony if needed.
ELAINE ALFORD: I know several in Clarence's case that have
come to me personally and expressed how bad and how sorry they were, how
bad it made them feel that they had to do to him what they did- you
know, that they had to do it. And if it was anything that they could do
to change it, they would.
INTERVIEWER: Why did they do it?
ELAINE ALFORD: Because that was the only opportunity that
they had to be free and to take the minimum that the law offers. Whereas
Clarence received the maximum.
NARRATOR: Of the four witnesses who testified against
Clarence in order to avoid life sentences, two served less than five
years and are now out. The self-avowed kingpin is serving a 12-year
sentence. Clarence's cousin did not serve a day.
INTERVIEWER: Why did they want Clarence?
LINDA AARON: Because they wanted Clarence to say something
that he didn't know, and he wouldn't say it, and that was the reason
why. They wanted him- and they wanted to make an example out of- "If you
don't help us, we'll get you," to show all these black boys that, "We'll
get you if you don't do what we say do."
INTERVIEWER: Is it true?
BOB CLARK: It's true. He refused to snitch. He refused to
make a deal. So he's now doing life without.
J. DON FOSTER: He thought he was going to win. And he was
given every opportunity to help himself early on, and he didn't- he
didn't want to do it.
INTERVIEWER: Why wouldn't you?
CLARENCE AARON: Miss Ofra, who was I to testify against? I
was the last one to be arrested. When I got arrested, all the guys that
was involved in our conspiracy was already cooperating. So what do you
want me to tell, what they already told? Ain't nothing else I could
tell. Only people I could have testified against, the guy that was
already cooperating at that particular time already.
J. DON FOSTER: You know, the tendency to feel sorry for him
is in relation to these other people that did cooperate and that did
help themselves and got less. And even though they were perhaps guiltier
or more culpable, they got less because they helped solve the case. They
helped to bring everybody to justice. And the one person or two- I think
there were two that went to trial in that case- that didn't, you know,
suffered the results or the consequences of the arrogance of thinking
that you're- you're going to beat this, that "I'm too good. I'm too good
to take a deal."
NARRATOR: Dennis Knizley is infuriated by this logic.
DENNIS KNIZLEY: We're trading our paranoia to get rid of
these drugs for our constitutional rights, and we're making a terrible
mistake in doing that.
INTERVIEWER: And I'm hearing it in Mobile, Alabama?
DENNIS KNIZLEY: You're hearing it in Mobile, Alabama, from
the conservative guy that went to West Point, that hates drugs and
doesn't do drugs. And you're hearing it from him that we- this war on
drugs is quickly, quickly eroding our constitutional rights.
"TONY": It's no longer about protecting people who are
innocent. Now it's part of the casualties of the drug war. "Well, if a
couple of them have to go, then that's what has to happen. Just like in
any other war, that's what has to happen." That's how they justify it in
their minds, I guess. That's how they can sleep at night. "Well, maybe I
did prosecute the wrong guy" or "Maybe he wasn't do guilty. But hey,
these other 15 guys, they were certainly guilty."
J. DON FOSTER: Believe me, we don't want to indict anybody
who's innocent. You know, that's what a trial is really for. It's a
search for the truth. And it's the best system in this world that we
have, and- I mean, right in the United States. It's not perfect, but
it's the best in the world.
NARRATOR: It is the system that put the fate of Clarence
Aaron in the hands of 12 jurors. We talked to one of them, Willie
WILLIE JORDAN: It's about as fair a system that I guess as we
can- you can have because you take 12 people on a jury, they pretty well
going to do the right thing, make the right decision, no matter who they
INTERVIEWER: You felt you had all the information that you
wanted to have from the government?
WILLIE JORDAN: Yes, I did. It was pretty clear-cut, I
NARRATOR: But federal jurors are not let into the sentencing
session and often do not know the end result of their verdict.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know what the sentence was?
WILLIE JORDAN: Well, you know, I meant to look in the paper
later to see what kind of sentence they served, and somehow or other I
missed it, and I never did know what kind of sentence they got.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of sentence do you think he
WILLIE JORDAN: Well, I wouldn't have thought a large number
of years, no. Just a- just a- probably a short sentence. Now, what a
short sentence is I don't know- three to five years, maybe something
like that. I don't know.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know that he got life?
WILLIE JORDAN: Life!
INTERVIEWER: Three concurrent life sentences.
WILLIE JORDAN: Three concurrent life sentences. With no hope
INTERVIEWER: No hope of parole.
WILLIE JORDAN: Well, that's more than I thought it would be.
But see, I had no idea. Well, I'm surprised at that, I really am, that
harsh a sentence. He seemed to be a pretty promising boy. Why did they
get such a high sentence, I wonder? I wish I didn't know now that they'd
[Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing in 1986, the
availability of drugs on the street in the U.S. has remained virtually
AND DIRECTED BY
Michael A. Dawson
TO PROTECT HIS IDENTITY,
TONY'S VOICE WAS DUBBED BY ACTOR
Sam Hodges, Mike Wilson
and the Mobile Press Register
Jeff And Greg Spaeni
Michael A. Dawson
Julie A. Parker
LoConte Goldman Design
The Caption Center
SENIOR STAFF ASSOCIATE
Lee Ann Donner
WEBSITE RESEARCH ASSISTANT
WEBSITE EDITORIAL MANAGER
SPECIAL PROJECTS ASSISTANT
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
A FRONTLINE coproduction with
Ofra Bikel Productions, Corp.
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED