Book Review: Snitch by Ethan Brown

Snitch. Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice is a title that has to bring a smile to a criminal defense lawyer’s face.  We certainly talk about rats enough, so  Ethan Brown’s new book,  published by Public Affairs, on one of our favorite subjects was a natural.

Ethan comes at writing from the perspective of rap culture, which made me wonder, before opening the book, what the breadth of his vision of the underbelly of the criminal justice system would be.  The prologue confirmed my fears, and served to frame Ethan’s idea of the subject matter.

The book begins with the tale of Gerry Shargel representing hip-hop impresario Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo.  My heart sunk.  This is going to be a love-fest with big time criminals, big time lawyers and the rats that ate them.

Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice


The book got better, however, as Ethan went into the history of legislation, and the politics surrounding it as it happened, that gave rise to mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines, and the crack differential.  If you weren’t around in those day when Washington found a magic bullet solution for every problem, and invariably involved more crimes and more time, then this part of the book will be quite enlightening.

But the book never provides a deeper understanding of the dynamic of snitching.  There are good guys and bad snitches, which wasn’t how it happened.  For those of us who lived in the trenches through that period, and whose experience extended beyond black hip-hop to Hispanic, Chinese and white drug groups, none of whom are mentioned, this is not merely a one-dimensional vision.  It’s simply inaccurate.

It may be that some of the sources Ethan used in trying to understand how snitching came to permeate the system were more concerned in promoting themselves or their personal agenda.  Criminal defense lawyers are notoriously bad at providing honest and accurate information, since spin is in our blood.  But that’s where a journalist’s instincts should kick in, digging below the obvious personal agendas to get to the meat of the subject.  It seems as if Ethan liked his sources too much to question them, or look beneath their self-serving positions.  To use a lousy pun, it just wasn’t that black and white.

Nowhere does Ethan recognize the role that snitch lawyers played in creating the CI culture, or why defense lawyers chose to be part of the problem.  There’s no discussion of how it spiraled out of control in a dizzying, geometric decline, as more and more defendants started racing for the United States Attorney’s door.  The feel of despair caused by one defendant in a multi-defendant conspiracy retaining a rat lawyer, and the others, his erstwhile brothers in arms, first denying that he would ever flip, and then coming to terms with reality, one by one, that there was no way out.

Much of the problem is that the stories Ethan tells, while some quite interesting, tend to be geared for either the hip-hop lover or at least those who want to read about the more sensationalist cases.  Where are the chapters on conspiracies, the major weapon in the prosecutors’ arsenal?  This is where snitches wreaked the most havoc. 

Another glaring omission is the prisoners’ dilemma.  What about the people sentenced to monumental prison terms who then had to figure out a way to see daylight again by a Rule 35 motion?  They ratted inside, they talked about anyone and anything that ever happened (or didn’t happen), they had their friends do constructive cooperation outside, all to have a glimmer of hope of ever seeing the street again.  People who swore they would never snitch collapsed when facing the rest of their lives in prison.  What about these people?  Nothing.

In terms of making a point, Ethan eschewed the ordinary, everyday stuff to focus on the bling, the big names.  If his point was to capture the Us Weekly reader, then maybe this makes sense.  If his purpose is to produce a book that captures the phenomenon of snitching, it’s birth, growth and impact, then these were the wrong examples to use. 

For the lawyer, this book is worth reading only for its discussion of the law, although it is framed in a way that the non-lawyer would understand, leaving it somewhat superficial from a legal perspective.  Still, it covered all the bases, included quite a bit of the political “back-story” and provided a good primer on how we ended up in this mess.  Ironically, the end of the book discusses Booker, and it’s failure to move federal courts away from the sentencing guidelines. This, of course, has since changed. 

As for the anecdotes, Snitch offers little of interest to a lawyer.  The stories, while involving well-known cases, are not terribly deep or engaging and, frankly, somewhat pedestrian to any criminal defense lawyer with some experience. And if you’ve ever done the “big case,” or any case for that matter, you know that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. It’s not that Ethan doesn’t come out on the right side, but that he planned to get there from the beginning and took the easiest, quickest route. 

Unfortunately, the best part of Snitch, Informants, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice is the name.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Snitch by Ethan Brown

  1. Ethan

    This is a really glib, uninformed review which I suspected might happen from your initial post about the book.

    1) Your point about sourcing is inaccurate. As I wrote in an e-mail to you, a huge team of criminal defense attorneys, policymakers, criminologists and drug policy experts were interviewed and consulted for the book. Here are just a few as I mentioned to you in an e-mail yesterday: Jon Caulkins, Peter Scharf, Robert Silbering, Eric Sterling, Eric Berlin, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and on and on and on.

    2) It’s also incorrect to characterize Snitch as “geared toward the hip-hop lover.” A number of different cases are discussed in the book from a huge terrorism case in NYC to a drug conspiracy case in Iowa to a heroin trafficking case in Baltimore that, sadly, ended with a federal prosecutor being murdered.

    3) Also incorrect is your contention that I “eschewed the ordinary, everyday stuff to focus on the bling, the big names. If his point was to capture the Us Weekly reader, then maybe this makes sense.” This is just ridiculous: just about all the defendants profiled in the book are ordinary defendants many with CJA attorneys. And I doubt anyone who reads US Weekly would be interested in a book that has a huge history of the federal sentencing guidelines.

    I could go on but your misreading of the book is, as you might put it, frankly exhausting.

    Take care,

    Ethan

  2. SHG

    Sorry that the review wasn’t more positive, but sour grapes doesn’t change anything.  I reviewed it from the perspective of a lawyer, and the purpose of my email about your sources was to better understand why it lacked the conceptual depth that the subject required.  It’s understandable why someone who is viewing the phenomenon from the outside would have a limited perspective, but this is a book, not an article, and still lacked full blown understanding of how and why snitching happened.  I can only call it like I see it.

  3. Norm Pattis

    Enjoyed the review. I am assuming that “Ethan’s” response is a prank and not the comments of the author. I can’t imagine an author behaving like a whiny bitch just because a reviewer spotted flaws in the work. (Think Ice T, I believe: “So fuck how you feel …” I am better than half way through the book and having a hard time finishing it. My sense? Hip-hop wanna be tries his hand at the law: gets about 80 percent of what he writes right, but leaves out the interesting 20 percent. Move on. Thanks for turning me on to the book in the first instance.

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