Monday, January 07, 2008

Snitching dillemmas confronted on the small screen

For those like myself interested in the pros and cons of using police informants, last night was a strong TV night.

First CBS' 60 Minutes offered a high-profile snitching two-fer: An interview with a mob assassin whose testimony implicated Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, and a face to face sit down with Texas pitching ace Roger Clemens over allegations by an uncorroborated informant that he used steroids. Then later in the evening, HBO launched the fifth and final season of The Wire, which arguably has done more to illuminate problems with reliance on informants than any journalist. A few quick comments about each:

Fingering Whitey Bulger: Is it snitching to snitch on a snitch?
Not long after Whitey Bulger was supposedly spotted on the lam in Italy, 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft interviewed John Martorano, a trigger man for the Irish Mob in Boston led by Bulger. Bulger used his position as a federal snitch for more than 30 years to target his opposition, and his FBI handlers supplied information on competitors and rats within Bulger's organization that led to numerous killings. It interested me to hear Martorano's thought process about what he'd done (he received just 12 years for more than 20 murders thanks to a sentence reduction in exchange for his testimony against Bulger's crew - approximately seven months for each admitted killing). Martorano didn't view himself as a mass murderer or a snitch, he said, but as a "vigilante" with a strong moral sense. He considered himself a "witness" instead of a "snitch," and said he came forward to STOP Whitey Bulger from snitching. He would have killed his former boss instead if he hadn't already disappeared from the scene, he said, so cooperating with the feds was his next best avenue for revenge. Watch the whole thing, and also see CBS' interactive portrait on the FBI, including several informant related scandals..

Pitching ace Clemens angry at uncorroborated snitch testimony
Meanwhile, Mike Wallace's interview with Roger Clemens I found equally interesting: As I've written before, these he-said he-said disputes can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and while the interview broke no new ground, it fleshed out the whys and wherefores of the dispute. A key moment came when Wallace confronted Clemens about the informant, Brian McNamee, who accused him in the Mitchell report of using steroids:
"George Mitchell says he believes McNamee and this is why: McNamee got caught up in a federal steroids investigation, and the federal prosecutors agreed not to charge him if he told the truth about his involvement with steroids. But they would charge him if he gave any false information. So Mitchell says McNamee had strong incentives to tell the truth," Wallace says. "What did McNamee gain by lying?"

"Evidently not going to jail," Clemens says.

"Jail time for what?" Wallace asks.

"Well, I think he's been buying and movin' steroids," Clemens says.
The problem is, depending on the circumstances, both arguments are equally plausible: McNamee could have told the whole truth in order to avoid prosecution, or if investigators were pressuring him with threat of jail time if he didn't name names, he could just as easily have manufactured allegations from a decade ago that can no longer be proved or disproved. While other players included in the Mitchell report frequently were identified through sales records and internet credit card transactions, no one has presented such corroborating evidence against Clemens.

Even though some view the upcoming Congressional hearings as a perjury trap for Clemens, from the evidence publicly described so far I can't see either libel or perjury suits sticking - neither side possesses corroborating evidence for their story, so I doubt we'll see libel suits in either direction.

Besides McNamee's allegations, the main reason many question Clemens' veracity is that his pitching career, especially toward the end, seemed almost superhuman, particularly as he aged into his mid-40s when most ball players have long since retired. As I listened to Wallace's questions along those lines, I thought to myself, what about Satchell Paige whose legendary pitching dominance endured past age 50 (though no one ever knew his exact birthday)? What about Nolan Ryan, whose ferocious fastball was as feared in his 40s as in his 20s? There aren't a lot of iron-men hurlers in Major League Baseball history, but we've seen others before Clemens and before the steroid era - simply his productivity at an advanced age, to me, provides no conclusive proof of his guilt.

We just can't know from the currently available evidence what is the truth. Clemens rightly complained that it's becoming virtually impossible for him to clear his name, since he can't prove a negative - that he DIDN'T do something - and that many people will never believe him:
"I don’t know if I can defend myself, I think people, a lot of people, have already made their decisions," he says.

"Well, a lot of people have made…," Wallace says.

"And that's our country, isn't it? Guilty before innocent. That that's the way our country works now. And then everybody's talking about sue, sue, sue. Should I sue? Well, let me exhaust. Let me just spend. How about, let's keep spending," Clemens says. "But I’m gonna explore what I can do and then I want to see if it’s gonna be worth it, worth all the headache." (UPDATE: Clemens had filed suit against McNamee by the time the interview was broadcast.)
Clearly, he's right; few are giving him the benefit of the doubt. At a certain point among journalists in particular a sense of schadenfreude sets in. Like Barry Bonds, lots of people want Clemens' accomplishments to appear tainted, and it shows in the ferocity of the coverage about him.

The Wire, Prop Joe, and Motives for Snitching
There are many reasons to welcome the much-anticipated final season of The Wire, HBO's crime drama set in Baltimore which has provided the most realistic small-screen portrayal of the drug trade and criminal justice politics ever produced.

Though I don't want to turn this blog into a center for TV criticism, to me the series has nearly morphed into a truly historic cultural event - the first ever attempt at a realistic, multi-dimensional approach to storytelling about crime and punishment, particularly as it relates to the War on Drugs.

To promote the new season, HBO has created an outstanding website that gives story summaries from every episode from season one to the present, and even crafted short "prequel" videos to give a sense of some of the characters before the storyline begins.

Click through here and watch the short video portraying a young "Prop Joe," a drug kingpin from Baltimore's East Side, plying his black market trade (selling stolen multiple choice test scores) as a plump high-school youth. When an older thug threatens him and shorts him on payment for the test scores, Prop Joe pulls aside a teacher to sell her information about who's walking around with tomorrow's test scores in his pocket.

The story to me seems nearly iconic: Prop Joe was the one selling test scores in every subject, but his customer was the one who ended up getting caught and presumably punished. It's an old story: The Big Fish get off, the Little Fish get eaten.


Anonymous said...

Can't tell by this if he was the main target of the Mitchell Report or not, as you mentioned in an earlier post. If he was, you'd think Hardin would have prepared him better for it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, Clemens said in the 60 Minutes interview he didn't know he'd be included in the report until it came out. If he'd known, he said, he would have agreed to speak to George Mitchell.

Anonymous said...

If I were Clemens, I wouldn't give those idiot congressmen the time of the day. Put those sumbitches under oath and ask each about their illegal drug use. They need to tend to the Nation's problems and this ain't one of 'em.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but he was offered the chance to go speak with him but declined. Sounds like buyer's remorse if you ask me. Just because he didn't know until later that he was going to be included is no excuse if you ask me.

You intimated at one point that he was the main target of the snitch, which is what made the snitch even less reliable.

Anonymous said...

Grits, have you heard this new stuff - the taped phone conversation and the press conference? What do you think?

That was some intense phone talk. It sure came off like McNamee was under unbelievable pressure from the feds to name Clemens, with a dying son in the backdrop.

Bill B.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I did hear that, Bill, and I agree it sounds like McNamee was really under pressure to name names. Clemens also gave him many opportunities to contradict him and claim he DID inject him with steroids, and he never did, instead offering to "go to jail." It wasn't definitive, but it sure made Clemens seem more credible.