In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, author/journalist Ted Conover has written a well-reported tale of a guy named Alex White who was working both sides of the legal line as drug dealer and as a C.I., or confidential informant — a snitch—who was asked by his Atlanta police handlers to tell one lie too many after a disastrous police raid on the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston.
Conover is an excellent journalist who writes for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the like. But he is best known in literary circles for his books like Coyotes, where he posed as an undocumented immigrant to cross the U.S. border illegally and New Jack: Guarding Sing-Sing in which, when Conover was refused permission to observe the training program for guards working at the NY State prisons, he simply joined up and went through the training himself, and then got himself hired at Sing-Sing. The book that resulted won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
As you read Conover’s story about Alex White, it is instructive to remember that, according to the Innocence Project, in more than 15% of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing, an informant testified against the defendant at the original trial.
Of course, in the cases made with the help of testimony by ” incentivized” drug informants, the chances are slim and none that DNA will magically appear to prove innocence should a conviction be less than righteous.
Anyway, read the story. It’s a terrific account about the implosion of some unholy alliances, and the dangers those alliances present when police start thinking that those whom they are investigating are scum anyway so it’s okay to cut corners…to shave the dice…to work in the gray.
Kathryn Johnston was doing pretty well until the night the police showed up. Ever since her sister died, Johnston, 92, had lived alone in a rough part of Atlanta called the Bluff. A niece checked in often. One of the gifts she left was a pistol, so that her aunt might protect herself.
The modest house had burglar bars on the windows and doors; there had been break-ins nearby.
Eight officers approached the house, and they didn’t knock. The warrant police obtained, on the basis of a false affidavit, declared they didn’t have to — the house where their informant had bought crack that day, the affidavit said, had surveillance cameras, and those inside could be armed. Because they couldn’t kick down the security gate, two officers set upon it with a pry bar and a battering ram in the dark around 7 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2006.
Burglars, Johnston probably thought, or worse — an elderly neighbor had recently been raped. No doubt she was terrified. That is why, as the cops got closer and closer, she found her gun. And why, as the door was opening, she fired one shot. It didn’t hit anyone. But it provoked a hail of return fire — 39 shots, 5 or 6 of which hit her (and some of which struck other policemen). By the time the officers burst inside, Kathryn Johnston lay in a pool of blood.
Waiting outside, in the back of a police van, was the small-time dealer who told the police there were drugs in the house. He did so under pressure: earlier in the day, three members of the narcotics team, working on their monthly quota of busts, rousted him from his spot in front of a store. Tell us where we can find some weight, they said, or you’re going to jail. The dealer climbed into a car with them and, a few blocks away, to save his own skin, pointed out Kathryn Johnston’s house — it stood out from the others on the block because it had a wheelchair ramp in front.
How did the dealer feel as he watched the home invasion, heard the fusillade of shots? And, inside the house, how long did it take for the police to realize their grave error and for some of them to decide to handcuff a fatally wounded woman and plant drugs in order to cover it up?
Be sure to read the rest. It’s worth the ride.