Get Out of Jail Free

In drug- or gang-related cases, one of the favorite weapons of prosecutors is confidential informants like Johnny Edwards. Trouble is, a lot of them will say anything to get themselves out of the hot seat--and continue committing crimes while they're turn

It's not the kind of thing cops see every day, but when Officer Jeff Werner and his partner spotted a slender red beam of light early on the morning of November 14, they knew exactly what they were looking at: the projection from a laser scope mounted atop a gun.

The police traced the beam to four men clustered around a white Chevy Cavalier parked near the intersection of 36th Street and Fifth Avenue South in Minneapolis. As they watched, the men--one of whom had only one leg--reportedly bent over the engine and taped the gun under the hood.

The cops questioned the men and searched their car. They found two more handguns in the car and ammunition in the men's pockets. The officers arrested the four. When they loaded the men into squad cars, the one-legged man protested that the police had made a mistake. They didn't know who they had. He was the "star witness" in some big trials underway downtown.

As it turned out, he was right. Johnny Edwards is a star witness, one so vital to police and prosecutors that local defense attorneys say he has a virtual "walk on water" pass. Edwards is the linchpin in the county's cases against six men who, according to police, are the ringleaders of Minneapolis's most violent gang.

Edwards, 23, entered the picture in January 1996, when he called the police from jail looking for a deal. He said he had information about some high-profile cases. In exchange, he wanted help getting out from under the robbery charge he was facing.

By the time Edwards was arrested in the laser-sight incident, three of the cases had gone to trial, with Edwards taking the stand each time. In each case, he said he knew the defendants because he used to belong to their gang, the Rolling 30s Bloods. His testimony was helping to win cases.

Citing its conflict of interest, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office turned the November weapons cases over to its Ramsey County counterpart, which decided not to prosecute Edwards and turned the remaining three cases over to the city of Minneapolis.

City Pages was unable to locate Edwards, who has moved at least twice since coming forward. Prosecutors won't comment on his status as an informant, but Werner remembers the arrest. "We didn't want to charge him," he confirms, "because it would have made him look like a bad witness."

The use of informants like Edwards has skyrocketed in recent years. Typically they are compensated with cash, or reductions in their own criminal charges, or both. According to one study that sampled records from cities across the country, payments to snitches tripled from 1980 to 1993, as did the number of search warrants issued based solely on the tips of informants whose identity was not revealed even to the judges issuing the warrants. The use of snitches has become especially prevalent in drug and gang cases, partly because mandatory sentencing means that the prison terms snitches would otherwise face are getting longer, and partly because of other witnesses' fears of retribution.

The potential for abuse is obvious. People of less than sterling character are given every incentive to embellish or even fabricate stories about others in order to save themselves. And owing to the rules of discovery in criminal cases, defense attorneys often lack the time and information to prepare a defense. Police and prosecutors naturally maintain that informants are a necessary evil. Defense lawyers and civil libertarians counter that an increasing number of criminals are learning how easy it is to get out of jail free.

The matter of Johnny Edwards combines all of the worst elements of an informant situation: A snitch with a mile-long rap sheet offers up information about cases in which officials are under pressure to produce a conviction. Edwards knew police were trying to nail two of the men he fingered. A couple of months earlier, the state failed to secure a conviction against Reggie Ferguson, the alleged leader of the Rolling 30s Bloods, and was forced to drop its charges against Ferguson's half-brother, Obuatawan Holt.

Ferguson and Holt had been charged with attempted murder. The incident took place in the late evening of February 6, 1995. Just before midnight, police were called to the northside house where Alizia Black and her two children were staying with her sister, Kim Black, and Kim's boyfriend, Ken Phillips.

Phillips and Alizia Black had been bickering for several days over who controlled the phone and who should pay which bills. That evening, the argument erupted into a fight. Police were called but no one was arrested. A little later, Alizia Black allegedly called her former boyfriend, Reggie Ferguson, to come get her and their kids and take them to his mother's house.

Soon, according to police, Ferguson--along with Holt and four other men--pulled up in front of Black's house in two cars. They went into the house and began beating Phillips. The six men then dragged Phillips outside, where they continued to beat him until Holt finally shot Phillips in the head, police reports claim. The bullet traveled between Phillips's scalp and skull, knocking out several teeth.

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