A little while ago, thinking about torture, I was rereading the section of David Chandler’s “Voices from S-21” in which he talks about how Khmer Rouge interrogations, purges and torture, like those of Stalin’s NKVD before them, had driven people who’d never done anything wrong to invent testimony incriminating themselves, relatives, and anyone else they knew of imaginary crimes, leading to an ever-expanding witchhunt that threw more and more people in jail (or worse) for crimes that never happened. And then a bit after that I chanced upon a review of the new movie “American Violet”, about a false drug dealing conviction in Texas in 2000.
And the two things together reminded me of a fantastic Frontline documentary I saw almost a decade ago, Ofra Bikel’s “Snitch”, on how harsh mandatory federal drug sentences in the US and prosecutorial discretion to grant reduced charges in exchange for cooperative testimony in fingering other “conspirators” were leading to cases in which drug dealers were fingering their innocent friends and cousins, who in turn fingered their innocent friends and cousins, getting ever-expanding circles of acquaintances sentenced to decades or life for drug offenses they hadn’t committed or that never took place at all.
One thing that was extremely powerful about the documentary was the witless performance of the Southern Alabama federal law enforcement officials Bikel interviewed. One egregious case she looked at involved Clarence Aaron, a college student who’d never been involved in a crime before but was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences because his cousins, facing long sentences for buying small amounts of cocaine from dealers who were never apprehended, “cooperated” with prosecutors by claiming Aaron had sold 9 kilos (!) of cocaine for $200,000 — although neither police nor anyone else could produce, nor had they ever seen, the 9 kilos, nor, for that matter, a single gram of the alleged cocaine, nor the alleged $200,000. The US District Attorney for Southern Alabama, one J. Don Foster, insisted Aaron was “guilty as sin” but was unable to provide any evidence other than the self-interested testimony of the two cousins; he seemed completely blindsided by the suggestion that if you’ve sentenced someone to 3 consecutive life sentences you ought perhaps to have some concrete evidence that a crime had taken place. And then he adduced, as justification for the life sentences, the fact that Aaron had refused to cooperate by confessing or naming more names! Unbelievable.
But here’s the thing that jumped out at me, rereading the transcript of Bikel’s interview with Foster.
What is your position?
I’m the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, [which] includes 13 counties from Mobile on the Gulf Coast to around Tuscaloosa on the north end.
Why are there so many federal drug cases in this district?
Well, the drug policy in the past has been very aggressive. I mean, we have been after drug users and drug distributors, and the big fish primarily, for a long time. It’s been traditional in this office, it’s been historical in this office. …
Who started it?
I would say probably it goes back to the Sessions tenure, who’s now a United States senator. He was in the office for 12 years. …
Oh, great. Jeff Sessions. And this is the guy who’s now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The line that stuck with me most in the documentary, but which doesn’t seem to be captured in the online transcripts, was when Bikel asked Aaron why he hadn’t dreamt up a false accusation against somebody else to get his own sentence reduced. Aaron’s response as I recall it: “Miss Ofra, who was I gonna turn in? Everybody I could have snitched on was already in jail.”
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