Stand-up guys

``HE'S a stand-up guy,'' says the assistant United States attorney in George Higgins's ``The Friends of Eddie Coyle.'' ``Stand-up guys do time.'' A stand-up guy, in the parlance of criminal justice, is a defendant (or a suspect) who declines to trade for information, however tempting may be the government's invitations or inducements.

Stand-up guys, of either sex, are highly regarded by the potential subjects of their disclosures. Conversely, a fink, stoolie, or squealer runs considerable health and life hazards.

Truth to tell, telling the truth (about someone else) is not one of the American ideals. In prisons, a person rightly or wrongly suspected of ratting is at such risk that he must be kept in extra-secure ``protective custody.''

Police frequently rely on informants to locate evidence and even to apprehend malefactors. Prosecutors often need a squealer's testimony to convict an otherwise impregnable defendant.

Yet both arms of the law openly express contempt for the very individual upon whom their professional success depends.

The law itself shares the ambivalence. It establishes elaborate procedures for conferring immunity from prosecution, as a stimulus to disclosure, both in and out of court.

Yet when an immunized witness testifies, the judge usually must instruct the jury to scrutinize the testimony with particular care. In Massachusetts, a statute even requires the government to produce corroborating evidence before the jury can convict.

Public perception is equally unfavorable. Press coverage of the baseball/cocaine trial expressed palpable disapproval of the player-witnesses' willing display of show-and-tell.

Yet it takes only a brief courthouse visit to make plain that the evidence which leads to arrests and, ultimately, convictions, often depends on informants.

They tell the police where to look so that the officers can obtain a search warrant; from the search come the incriminating artifacts that lead in turn to indictment and either a plea or a conviction.

Certainly, when encouraging turncoats, the judicial system has to beware the possibility of perjury-for-hire, perjury-for-grudge, and perjury-for-better-treatment.

Frequently, too, the dealt-for witness is, as I once heard a prosecutor admit to a jury, ``no box of chocolates.''

Remember, an accomplice who turns state's evidence was, at an earlier stage in his evolution, a joint venturer in the defendant's criminal enterprise.

But after all is said (and smelled), the argument seems irrefutable: The more the law encourages dishonor among thieves, the more likely it is that at least one of the participants in a joint crime will face punishment.

Even in our squealer-despising society, the pressure to avoid the consequences of one's own bad behavior by shifting the burden onto a former friend is immense. Sometimes the process takes time. Sitting in jail, while the other fellow enjoys unlimited fresh air and carefree companionship, frequently stimulates the narrative faculties.

Occasionally, things go much faster. In one celebrated Massachusetts bribery case, hardly had the arresting detectives slipped the handcuffs on the donor than he was inquiring about available deals. His quickness meant, as it so often does, the difference between a seat in the witness box and a seat at counsel table (and shortly thereafter, behind bars).

In a very real sense, we would all be better off if the accepted -- indeed, the encouraged -- norm were spilling the beans on one's erstwhile associates. If every joint-venturing crook had to include in his risk-factoring the reasonable certainty that whoever was first caught would help convict everyone else, the fear might serve as a useful, albeit not conclusive, deterrent.

Revealing crime hardly equates with impoliteness, immorality, or even tattling. At least one institution in this country devoted to the concept of honor has thrived for years on the principle of reporting the infractions of one's fellows. The judicial system need not be embarrassed to adopt the West Point definition of a ``stand-up guy.''

Hiller B. Zobel sits on the Massachusetts Superior Court.

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