Snitch Culture Pollutes Communities and Criminal Justice System
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
In their 2000 book, An Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Henry M. Wrobleski and Karen M. Hess said that the use of informants is one of the oldest and most essential investigative tools for law enforcement. In an October 7, 2012 report, USA Today cited 2005 figures provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) that the agency had 4,000 while the FBI two years later said it had 15,000 or more. In the wake of the infamous James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger/FBI snitch case, DEA officials told the Inspector General’s office that “without confidential informants, the DEA could not effectively enforce the controlled substances laws of the United States.” The Whitey Bulger case notwithstanding, the FBI maintains an even more aggressive position. In a Sept./Oct. 2011 issue of Mother Jones, Trevor Aaronson effectively described the FBI snitch program:
“Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s No. 1 priority, consuming the lion’s share of its budget–$3.3 billion, compared to $2.6 billion for organized crime—and much of the attention of field agents and [sic] a massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau’s records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as ‘hip pockets’ …
“Throughout the FBI’s history, informant numbers have closely guarded secrets. Periodically, however, the bureau has released those figures. A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had 1,500 informants. In 1980, officials disclosed there were 2,800. Six years later, following the FBI’s push into drugs and organized crime, the number of bureau informants ballooned to 6,000, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986. And according to the FBI, the number grew significantly after 9/11. In its 2008 budget authorization request, the FBI disclosed that it had been working under a November 2004 presidential directive demanding an increase in ‘human resource development and management,’ and that it needed $12.7 million for a program to keep tabs on its spy network and create software to track and manage informants.”
Snitching has effectively become an unregulated, underground industry providing enormous profits for the informants–either through direct payments or tacit permission to commit crime—and “effective” law enforcement agencies always demand larger and larger budgets for the use of informants .
There is no way to calculate the number of wrongful convictions and murders of the rivals/enemies caused by law enforcement snitches as evidenced by the Whitey Bulger and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano cases. What can be calculated, however, is the damage this corrupt, unholy alliance has had on the African-American, Hispanic and Latino communities in this country. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Jerome Miller, in his book Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, warned:
“No single tactic of law enforcement has contributed more to violence in the inner city than the practice of seeding the streets with informers and offering deals to ‘snitches’ … [R]elying on informants threatens and eventually cripples much more than criminal enterprise. It erodes whatever social bonds exist in families, in the community, or on the streets—loyalties which, in past years, keep violence within bounds.”
In an October 16, 2012 Prison Legal News article, Alexandra Natapoff pointed out that in the inner city snitching implicates “every extended family, every apartment complex, every neighborhood gathering and informal social network’” The net result is that most people in the inner cities knows at least one or more snitches “looking for incriminating information about others and working off their own liability in the process.”
What does this kind of snitching prevalence do to a society? Communist East Germany is a good example. The country’s State Security Service (more commonly known was the Stasi) was founded in 1950 and over the next four decades established a surveillance network that infiltrated every segment of East German life. Historian Garton Ash pointed out that the word “Stasi” became a “global synonym for the secret public terrors of communism.” The Stasi kept meticulous records (much as the Germans did in WWII) about their network of informants. Shortly after the collapse of communism, protestors in January 1990 stormed Stasi headquarters which ultimately led to people learning that they had been betrayed by family members, trusted friends, close neighbors and work colleagues, as author David Cook documented in a July 2011 article (Living with the Enemy).
Utilizing a 2004 directive issued by former President George W. Bush, the FBI proposed in 2007 to create a “network of informants” with Stasi-like traits. In the ensuing five years, the nation’s lead law enforcement agency and a host of state agencies have pretty much accomplished its informant objectives, at least in their drug enforcement efforts. Nastapoff explains:
“Unbeknownst to the general public, the widespread use of criminal informants inflicts special harms on poor, high-crime, minority neighborhoods. Because drug enforcement is so pervasive in these communities, informant use is likewise common. This means that all the dangers of snitching—more crime and violence, unreliability and distrust—are concentrated in these already vulnerable neighborhoods, sometimes with devastating results.
“It has become all too well recognized that the war on drugs disproportionately targets African Americans. Although blacks and whites use and sell drugs at approximately the same rates, the justice system arrests, prosecutes and punishes blacks far more often and more harshly than it does whites for the same offenses. In some states, African American are arrested and prosecuted for drug offenses at fifty times the rate of whites. The trends for Latinos are similar. The racial skew in drug enforcement largely explains why the American prison population is now overwhelmingly black and brown: 75 percent of all incarcerated drug offenders are African American or Latino.
“The racial skew in drug enforcement begins in black neighborhoods. Arrest rates for African Americans urban residents have skyrocketed over the past two decades, in some cities by over 500%. Because police routinely pressure drug arrestees to become informants, this means that a growing proportion of the poor urban population is like to encounter pressure to snitch at some point.
“We can only extrapolate how many informants are in poor black neighborhoods. Normally, one third of African American men between the ages of 20 to 29 are under correctional supervision: either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. But this staggering number is somewhat misleading because it is a national average. In high-income, well-educated neighborhoods, the number is much lower. Conversely, in poor neighborhoods with weak educational resources and scarce jobs, the numbers will be higher. Indeed, in cities such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, as many as half of the young black men in this age bracket are under correctional supervision at any given time.
“Approximately half of these supervised young men are in the justice system for a drug-related offense, either a charge of possession or distribution, or a property offense committed in order to satisfy a substance abuse problem. This group of offenders—one quarter of the young black male population—is therefore at especially high risk of becoming informants because drug offenders—with their connections to the drug economy—are so likely to be pressured to cooperate.
“Of course, being pressured to snitch and actually doing so are entirely different matters, particularly in this day and age where becoming an informant can be extremely dangerous. At the federal level, fifty percent of drug defendants cooperate, but as explained above, this may be too high a percentage for state and local jurisdictions. At the same time, sociological research suggests that street and local criminal offenders probably cooperate informally with police at very high rates. For the sake of argument, assume that state and local drug offenders inform at half the rate of federal offenders, in other words, at a rate of 25 percent. That would mean that for the young black male population in these high-crime pockets of poverty, half of whom are under correctional supervision, half of those are drug-related offenders, and one quarter of those—one in sixteen, or about six percent of the total—may actually be cooperating with the government.”
Norcott Corby was one of those snitches in the six percent. He was a New York City drug dealer. He had two accomplices in his drug dealing business: Orlando “Moe” Moreno and Walter Farrow. Yousef Mohammed was part of a California drug ring which had arranged a deal to sell some heroin to Corby in late 1995 or early 1996. Mohammed arrived in New York City with the heroin to consummate the deal. He checked into a Manhattan hotel in January 1996. A few days later Corby met Xanderia Burnett at a local bar where he offered her $1500 to use her Manhattan apartment to “meet up with a friend.” Since Corby had been a previous boyfriend of Burnett’s mother, she agreed to the apartment arrangement.
On January 22, 1996, Corby and his two cohorts, accompanied by Burnett, drove in two vehicles to the hotel where Mohammed was staying, picked him up, and escorted him back to Burnett’s apartment. Corby had an appointment with his parole officer that day. Shortly after the couple dropped Mohammed, Moe and Farrow off at Burnett’s apartment, they drove to the parole office where Corby checked in with his parole officer. The couple then returned to Burnett’s apartment where they found Moe and Farrow sitting in the living room watching television. Burnett asked the two men where Mohammed was. They did not respond.
At this point Corby asked his two companions if they “had the key.” The two men led Corby from the living room into an adjacent bedroom. A short time later all three drug dealers exited the bedroom. Corby instructed Burnett to accompany him to Mohammed hotel room where Corby opened the room’s door with a key and collected some taped up brown bags. Corby told Burnett to help him carry the bags back to their vehicle. After the couple arrived back at Burnett’s apartment, the three men went into the bedroom and stayed about fifteen minutes. They left the bedroom door ajar when they came out. Upon passing the bedroom to the bathroom, Burnett saw Mohammed’s body lying face down on her son’s bed with a severe head wound. Upset, Burnett demanded to know what happened at which time Corby told her to “calm down” or she would “be dead too.” The three men then split up the drugs, ordered Burnett to help them remove Mohammed’s body from the apartment. They all wrapped in a rug and loaded it into her shopping cart. Corby then instructed her to “clean up” the bloody mess—which she did. Mohammed’s body was later discovered on Riverside Drive in Upper Manhattan.
Burnett did not know that Mohammed had used her name and address to open bank accounts and receive mail. New York City homicide Detective John Bourges was assigned to investigate Mohammed’s murder. Bourges linked Mohammed’s name to Burnett’s address after checks sent to Mohammed at her address were returned. On February 2, 1996, Bourges went to Burnett’s apartment to discuss the Mohammed murder at which time she denied any knowledge of the murder. Corby was in the residence when Bourges conducted his interview. She would later testify that she did not tell Bourges anything about Mohammad’s murder because Corby had threatened to kill her and her son.
Corby continued to live at the Burnett apartment until April at which time he was arrested for an unrelated parole violation. Burnett saw this as her opportunity to escape. She stole some money from Corby and fled with her son to Philadelphia. To say the least, Corby was in a rage by the time he was released in 1998 from prison for the parole violation, knowing Burnett had fled with his money. To get revenge, Corby in April 1998 went to a DEA agent, Robert Horn, and offered his services as a “paid informant” if the agent would help him locate Burnett. Horn refused the offer. Not deterred, Corby returned to Horn a week later, providing the agent with information about drug transactions and murders. He informed Horn that Burnett and her cousin had murdered Mohammed and he had assisted the pair in removing the body from the apartment. Horn conveyed this information to Detective Bourges who, in July 1998, went to Philadelphia to once again interview Burnett about Mohammed’s murder. After viewing photos of Corby, Mohammed, Moreno, Farrow, and others, Burnett said she recognized Corby, Moreno, and Farrow but none of the others. At that point Bourges told Burnett that Corby had implicated her in Mohammed’s murder at which time she “broke down” and in tears confessed to Bourges that it was actually Corby and his two companions who killed Mohammed and the role she played in concealing it. Bourges escorted Burnett to a local Philadelphia precinct where he Mirandized her.
Based on the information supplied by Burnett, Bourges continued his investigation into Mohammed murder and ultimately arrested Corby, and his two companions, in October 1998. In the ensuing twelve years, Corby’s appeals inexorably worked their way up and down the state and federal appellate system before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on October 12, 2012 pretty much shut down all his appeal issues. He will now spend the rest of his life, or most of it, in one New York prison or another.
Corby went to DEA agent Horn seeking information about Burnett’s whereabouts so he could exact his personal revenge, and, when that failed, he decided to frame her for Mohammed’s murder. While Corby’s attempt at “snitch revenge” backfired on him, there are many other informants who literally get away with murder with the corrupt assistance of law enforcement. Edward J. Delattre in his 1996 book, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, observed: “No one who does not already care about being a good person and doing what is right can have a serious ethical question. A person must have achieved a disposition to do the right thing in the right way at the right time for the right reasons before any moral perplexities can arise.”
Most informants, like Corby, do not snitch because they want to do the “right thing” for the “right reasons.” They snitch for profit or to escape personal liability. And most cops will feed them the necessary “rat cheese” to make more and larger cases, at the expense of the very moral fabric of our society.
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair