Site that snitches on snitches irks judges

Whosarat.com, which profiles informants, worries some jurists.

In spring 2003, Eugene "Twin" Coleman began cooperating with the FBI after he was linked to a murder and a cocaine ring run by one of Philadelphia's most notorious drug kingpins.

By the time Kaboni Savage was convicted in December 2005, two other potential witnesses had been gunned down. Coleman's mother and five other family members were dead, too, killed in a house fire that investigators believe was set in retaliation.

Coleman went into the federal witness-protection program.

But if he thought he could fade into obscurity, he was wrong. His role as an informant is detailed at www.whosarat.com. The vitriol-filled Web site lists more than 4,300 purported snitches from around the world. And that is sending a wave of worry through the criminal justice system, where informants play a critical role.

For fees ranging from $7.99 for one week's access to $89.99 for a lifetime membership (and a T-shirt), anyone can do a search or post information, with photos, about cooperating witnesses and their dime-dropping deeds. Most profiles include angry messages. Court documents often are attached as proof.

"He's a drug dealer, and a murderer, why should anyone believe what comes out of his mouth," said the posting about Coleman. "He's going to lie, in hopes to get his self out of a jam."

The site has caught the attention, and the ire, of some federal judges. They've begun limiting public access to the kind of court papers that have been posted at whosarat.com: plea agreements and sentencing documents that disclose who is cooperating with the government.

"If it saves one life, it's worth it, in my view - or saves one case," said Chief Judge Harvey Bartle 3d of U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. He said on Thursday that his bench no longer would post plea and sentencing papers on the court Web site. They will still be available at the courthouse.

A committee of federal judges is mulling a policy that would apply to all federal courts. What to do about whosarat.com is "a problem nationwide," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Dale Hoffa, who heads the Philadelphia office's criminal division and joined defenders and judges in devising the local plan.

Whosarat.com was started in 2004 by Sean Bucci, a Boston disc jockey who was linked to a drug ring by the testimony of informants. He was sentenced this month to 12 years in prison.

The image of a rodent tops the home page; just below it are three featured "rats of the week."

Chris Brown, whosarat.com's spokesman, said that the site was merely a forum for information already available - and that the First Amendment protects its free flow.

The site is a place to vent, Brown said, but he noted that messages are monitored. Any urging violence against informants are removed, he said.

What passes the censor is not sugarcoated.

"This scumbag has been busted 13 times and never did time," said a posting about an informant from New Jersey.

"We hold court on the streets," said a chilling posting about a "rat" from North Philadelphia said to have helped police.

No one likes a tattletale, Brown added: "It's one of the first things you learn as a child. . . . Nobody wants to hear you tell on someone."

Save for prosecutors.

Cooperating witnesses usually are defendants who agree to testify against their former partners in crime. Typically, they get less prison time in return for their help.

The need for truthful cooperators has perhaps never been greater in Philadelphia, as prosecutors bump into a culture of fear that pervades neighborhoods ravaged by murder and stops eyewitnesses from stepping up.

"It's become a lot more difficult to prosecute these cases," said Edward McCann, the veteran prosecutor who heads the homicide unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

So a criminal-turned-informant becomes even more important. Cooperators usually testify, but sometimes they can stay in the background of a prosecution. Whosarat.com shines a light on them.

"It's one thing for the people you're testifying against to know about your decision. It's another thing for the world to know," said Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson. "That's very scary."

The e-mail address of a defense witness in one of Gilson's murder cases turned up in a whosarat.com posting.

In a New Mexico drug case, a cooperating witness' photo and profile from whosarat.com were distributed in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived, according to U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan. Flyers were put on windshields and utility poles, calling the man a "snitch," "informer" and "rat."

Felicia Sarner, a supervisory federal defender who also was on Bartle's committee, acknowledged that whosarat.com could jeopardize the safety of cooperating witnesses. She called the court's decision to limit online access to some documents a "reasonable course of action" because they still could be obtained with a trip to the courthouse.

U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim of Minnesota, who is chairing the committee working on a nationwide policy, said he favored something less restrictive. "I feel strongly that information needs to be readily available," he said.

On whosarat.com, Coleman is Informant 3296. His photo is not posted, and the only document attached is a news clipping about his case.

Partly because of Coleman's testimony, Kaboni Savage is serving a 30-year sentence for drug offenses, money-laundering and witness intimidation, among other charges. A federal prosecutor said he had never before seen a defendant as "vicious, vindictive and hateful" as Savage.

 


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.