The FBI has a saying, “There are two types of criminals, those that cooperated and those that wished they had cooperated.” With a 98% conviction rate the United States Attorney’s office has a winning record that would make any coach jealous. Considering criminal cases account for less than 10% of all proceedings that takes place in Federal court rooms the government allots the best and brightest legal minds it possesses to this small sector. Ask any defense attorney and they will tell you that the government rarely ever loses. They will explain to you that going to trial is hardly ever in their client’s best interests. As a result the federal system has become a system of pleas, because trial exposes defendants to sentences that will be exponentially greater than if they would have taken the plea. Rejecting a plea offer can mean receiving a mandatory minimum sentence that can result in punishments ranging anywhere from decades in prison to a possible life sentence. The prosecution is fully cognizant of the fact that they are holding all of the cards, and because of that they operate with impunity in the federal court system. Defense attorneys are fully aware of the omnipotence of the government and sometimes try and communicate this to their clients, who are new to the system and ignorant to what they are truly up against, but in due time they will become believers as well. After a few weeks in pretrial preventive detention at their local Federal detention holding center listening to horror stories and seeing other inmates coming back from being sentenced reality begins to set in. Either they cooperate or say good-bye to the free world for a while.
There are different types and classes of informants. The common type are the people that get caught committing a crime and then “flip”(choose to cooperate) on all their accomplices in exchange for a lighter sentence. These informants called cooperating witnesses will divulge all the facts of the crime they are being charged with, along with other uncharged criminal acts that the government may or may not have known about in what is called a proffer session. In the proffer session the informant will be accompanied by their attorney, in the room will also be the prosecuting attorney and the special agents in charge of the case. Prior to the commencement of the proffer session the government informs the cooperating witness (C.W.) that they are not allowed to make the informant any promises or guarantees. That any information that the informant provides is of their own volition and that the informant must be completely truthful or all deals are off and they will be charged with obstruction of justice. So in other words tell us everything you know and if we feel we can use you and the information you have provided then and only then will you receive a lighter sentence. The informant usually agrees to these terms and conditions in hopes that they will not spend anymore time in prison. After the proffer session the informant signs his or her statement, agreeing under the penalty of perjury all the stated facts are the truth. The informant will then continue to meet with the government several times in order to be prepped for trial in case their co-defendants chooses to forego a plea agreement and go to trial. Where the informant will be the government star witness.
Then there’s what’s called a confidential informant or “C.I.” These informants are on the government’s payroll and aid investigators by providing intelligence. Confidential informants are usually part of large criminal organizations. At some point in their criminal careers they got caught breaking the law. Rather than going to prison they decided to play for team USA (United States Attorney). The deal usually specifies that the informant keeps living the criminal lifestyle, except now they must report all the criminal activities of their superiors and underlings to their FBI handlers. The informant’s homes, cars, phones and jewelry are either bugged or doubles as cameras. They may be on the government’s payroll for years, and based on their value to the FBI they may earn hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for their services. They are encouraged to climb the ladder of the criminal organization . C.I’s can also be street level thugs but the shelf life of these kind of informants isn’t long, due to the fact they are not as coveted therefore not as well protected as those that belong to the upper echelon of the criminal world.C.i’s rarely serve time in prison and if they do it’s usually a short stay.
Then you have “those that wished they had cooperated.” This class of informants are the ones sitting in prison after they’ve lost trial or have plead out to a lengthy sentence. These are the tough guys that the underworld considers “stand-up guys” or real gangsters. Some federal prisons especially what are called USP’s or United States penitentiaries are some of the most dangerous prisons in the country if not the world. Some big time millionaire criminals quickly realize in these types of institutions that their money can’t buy respect. Instead it makes them targets for extortion. Plus chances are that they will be sent far away from home, so the name and credibility they once enjoyed in their neighborhood or city means nothing to those that don’t know you. These prisons are located are always located up in the mountains in some part of rural America that’s below the poverty line. These conditions makes it hard for family members and loved ones to visit on a regular basis. The extreme violence leading to constant institutional lockdowns and the prison politics that (usually centered around issues of no real importance) lead to multiple stabbings and murders annually can take it’s toll mentally on even the toughest of criminals. Then one day the gangster realizes that he has had enough. This once harden thug decides to contact his lawyer and asks his attorney to set-up a meeting with the US attorney’s office because he has some information about an unsolved murder or some ongoing criminal activity. Sometimes it’s the prosecution who comes calling, because they need the inmate to testify on some one from their crew in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The hierarchy of the criminal world are those that belong to international criminal organizations, Cartel members and terrorist organizations. These criminals and terrorists get the red carpet rolled out for them. They usually get to keep most of their assets and money. With these types of informants their plea agreements are negotiated like they are star free agents. They are wined and dined. The government understands their sales pitch and approach to these informants must be perfect. The prosecutors in charge of the case involving these information brokers knows that not only his career, but the careers of every one involved in the investigation and prosecution rests on his or her ability to close the deal. the information provided may lead to the arrests of some of the most powerful criminals in the world. The reverberations of such arrests will be felt not only in the realm of law enforcement but also in the political world. The majority of of criminals who try to cooperate do not receive a letter for substantial assistance from the government referred to as a 5K.1 letter because they are not considered credible, but these whales from cartels are treated differently both sides recognize the value of of these types of informants. This is the highest level of the game where the top echelon informants have all the power even though the prosecution might want to admit it. Both sides understand the gravity of the situation and the implications it will have for everyone involved. These these career making cases are what prosecutors dream of.
What happens when law enforcement’s number one weapon against crime manipulates the system? When the guys working for team Unites States Attorney are the ones doing all of the killings like Greg “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa? Scarpa was a mafia capo and a confidential informant for the FBI that was basically granted immunity to sell drugs, rob, extort and kill for decades. There was also mob hit man Sammy “The Bull” Gravano who was mafia boss John Gotti’s personal bodyguard. Who cooperated against his employer in exchange for a lighter sentence, then turns around and starts running a multi-million dollar ecstasy ring while in the witness protection program. These men are just two of the more famous informants that have wasted tax payers dollars and continued to engage in criminal activity after being granted leniency for their cooperation. Men like Gravano and Scarpa had so much power due the information that they possessed that certain things were overlooked till the media got wind of it. A rogue informant can easily ruin a strong case, and in some situations covering up an informants actions is more important than having a big time crime boss walk. Some prosecutors and FBI agents felt that jeopardizing public safety in order to get convictions was a small price to pay for a career making conviction.
American gangster culture is filled with informants that have taken down whole organizations and crooked cops, in exchange for a new identity and a new beginning in the witness protection program. Some informants cooperated because they saw the error in their ways and wanted to atone for past wrong doings. Others cooperated in order to receive a get out of jail free card and continue their murderous ways. Even more so than before because they understand the ins and outs of the system and how to manipulate it at will. When dealing with informants it’s a hit or miss situation for prosecutors. Prosecutors are fully aware that they are playing with snakes and can get bit. There has never been honor amongst thieves, because thieves are opportunists. Knowing this the prosecution provides criminals opportunities to do what they do best, which is look out for themselves.