Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Law of Snitching

I would love to meet the originator of the phrase "snitches get stitches."  I want to know where he or she is now.  How living life by that mantra has worked out.

In an interview with a victim last week, he informed me that he would never testify because on the streets, "snitches get stitches."  

I informed him that he was a victim, not a snitch.  Not a co-defendant turning on his buddy.  It didn't matter to him because snitching has transformed to include people who call the police as a victim of a crime.

Street Law

Over the last few weeks, there has been a slew of shootings in my city.  Many of these have turned fatal and the stories are picking up steam in the local papers.  Columnists, community leaders, and detectives are screaming for witnesses to come forward.

There is a distressing phenomenon in American inner cities.  A slim minority of men can bend entire neighborhoods to their will through fear.  They rob, steal, and maim with impunity.  Witnesses routinely tell police officers that they will not ever cooperate.  It's led many of our usual suspects to commit acts of violence against people they know.  Those people are less likely to report the crime and follow through for fear of retaliation.  They know the suspect, but more important to them, the suspect knows who they are and where they live.

These men make life miserable for a neighborhood and obstruct progress in a community.  Yet people are afraid to speak out against them.  Good citizens fear for their own lives and those of their children when they speak with police.  Those that do cooperate refuse rides to court because they don't want their neighbors to see them getting in a police car.

This perception needs to be destroyed.

The worst, most hardened gangster is the first to beg for a plea deal to give up his friends.  It happens everyday in every city in America.  When the alternate choice is a lifetime in prison, people come to the side of light pretty quickly.  These same men who vow vengeance against any person that testifies against them, cry in my office when recounting their tales of crime and begging for mercy.

Snitching used to refer to one gangster cooperating against another gangster.  Their has been a loud and fruitful campaign to use it against all people who report a crime.  Victims of violence or theft are told to accept what happened as part of life in the neighborhood and not report it to the police.

Let's get the ones who create havoc off the streets.  It takes citizens who will stand up.  It's just an unfortunate truth that for every reported violent crime, there are probably two or three that don't get reported because the victim is resigned to accept their fate.  

Actual Law

The legal term for snitching is called accomplice testimony.  It's when a person involved in a crime agrees to testify against the other participants in exchange for a reduced plea.

Said another way, the person cops a deal.

New York law says that testimony of an accomplice, standing alone, is insufficient proof against the defendant.  There must be some form of corroboration that connects the defendant to the crime on top of the co-defendant testimony.

The reason for this is simple.  A person can simply make up anything to get a better deal.  Two drunk people in a car after an accident?  Well, either one can claim the other was driving.  Two robbers?  One of them will inevitably claim the other had the gun to get a lighter sentence.

The law requires something more than an accomplices word to prove a defendant guilty.  That means an independent witness, DNA, fingerprints, or other circumstances must exist.

This is different than federal law where accomplice testimony is enough.  Federal prosecutors do not need any corroboration, although many won't prosecute a case without it.

Some interesting strategies must be discussed when a co-defendant agrees to testify.

First, the prosecutor must decide if the benefits of the testimony outweigh the disadvantages.  The negatives are that the prosecutor appear like a salesman, making deals to get what they want.  Also, the defendant turned witness had inevitably lied to the police or prosecutor already.  The cooperator will only get a deal when they say what we want to hear.  It can look like we only give deals to people who say what we want to hear. 

Second, prosecutors must decide how to use the defendant at trial.  (See this post on the unlikeable witness).  Embrace the witness as a bastion of the truth?  Speak about the witness as a necessary evil?  It depends on each case.  One thing is certain.  The defendant will be telling his attorney every despicable act the cooperating witness ever did.  The witness will look like the ring leader of an evil empire by the end of the cross-examination.  That's why I constantly remind the jury that the cooperator is the defendant's friend, not mine.

I am an advocate for the victims of crimes.  But, I can't be the only one.  Victims and witnesses must be an advocate for themselves and do whatever is necessary to see the person brought to justice. 


  1. What a great and informative post. Well I can tell you in Philly there is a whole culture surrounding this snitches get stitches bullshit. Back in 06 they even had tee shirts and crap like that in some neighborhoods around here. The worst part is not so much the accomplices but the regular old people who witnessed crimes not coming forward because they would be maimed or killed. Unfortunately, the government can't afford to put all these people into protective custody which is what needs to happen. Many, many criminals in this city have gone unpunished because the average citizen who saw the crime is too afraid to speak up about it. It is a sad, sad thing.

  2. Hi, I am a new follower. I am glad I found your blog. I am a former prosecutor of twenty years. For the last ten, I was the chief assistant district attorney and handled only violent crimes. I cannot even begin to tell you how many homicide cases that I prosecuted that witnesses out right refused to testify. In one case, I was forced to offer the defendant a plea to manslaughter with a cap of five years. No kidding. He turned me down and I was not about to dismiss the case. Through a series of fortunate circumstances, I was able to convict him of second degree murder which carries a mandatory life without the possibility of parole in Louisiana. He cried and asked me if the original offer was on still on the table -after the jury verdict. Not a chance.

    I have learned that in any gang related offense, the witnesses would rather be jailed and held on a material witness warrant and commit perjury than risk testifying against another gang member.

    I will be back to read more of your awesome blog.

  3. Thanks Melissa. I love hearing about other people's experiences. Keep the comments coming!

  4. what if prosecutors didn't make a deal yet accomplice testified lying several times and getting caught doing it and walked away with no time

    1. Possible perjury prosecution if there is proof he lied.