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

Even though the shooting isn't gang-related, Edwards's presence will probably give prosecutors a pretext for raising Holt's gang history in court; that was how they knew each other. The gang material could turn the case by itself: In November, the Star Tribune quoted police as crediting the difference between Ferguson's first and second trials in part to prosecutors' ability to introduce gang testimony the second time around. Says Keith Ellison, director of the local Legal Rights Center, "It's like 'communist' in the '50s.... They know it's prejudicial. They want to get it in front of a jury."

Although police investigators have testified in each of the so-called Rolling 30s Bloods cases about the defendants' gang affiliations, they have consistently refused to open up the files to defense attorneys. One cornerstone of our legal system is the right of the accused to examine the evidence against him; where gang files are concerned, however, that does not apply.

"Edwards is in tight with these guys and thus is in a position to know. Okay, fine. So give me his gang file," says defense attorney Joe Margulies, who expects to face Edwards in March when his own client, Milton Lewis, goes on trial for murder. "Every gang file is always part of an ongoing investigation. Even if there's no pending criminal investigation, it's exempt from disclosure. Your status as a gang member is the ongoing investigation."

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This catch-22 allows police to say pretty much what they want without fear of immediate contradiction. During Reggie Ferguson's recent trial, for instance, police insisted that Ferguson was the undisputed leader of the Bloods. Ferguson acknowledged being a Blood at one time, but insisted he had straightened out. Only later, under cross-examination, did police admit that the last observation of questionable activities by Ferguson noted in their files was dated 1990.

The gang files aren't the only instance in these cases in which attorneys are having a hard time learning what authorities know about their clients and how. In each of the six trials where Edwards is expected to testify, the county announced that it planned to call an informant, but didn't name the witness or turn over the kind of information to which defendants are usually entitled. The court order sealing the witness's identity is called a prosecutor's certificate. It's used in cases where witnesses need special protection, and prosecutors argued that the informant, Edwards, was vulnerable to retaliation from gang members angered by his testimony.

Normally, weeks or months before criminal cases go to trial, each side gives the other a list of witnesses it may call. Attorneys subpoena information about the people listed so they can prepare to rebut testimony or question their credibility. But in Ferguson's trial and the two others that have been completed to date, prosecutors turned over information about Edwards right before trial--weeks after it's typically divulged. (Edwards previously testified in the cases of Alonzo Ferguson and of Solomon Shannon, both of whom were convicted of different homicides.)

The county tried to maintain the same aura of secrecy surrounding Edwards in Holt's case, too. But Babcock argued that since Edwards had already testified several times in open court and his name had appeared in local newspapers, the protective order should be lifted. She won, but by the time she gets the information, she'll have just days to prepare to face the most important witness against Holt.

In talking with police, Edwards miraculously possessed information about everything the police mentioned. According to a transcript of his statement, they asked if Ferguson was a pimp. Yes, Edwards said, and Alizia Black was one of his hookers. Police asked about Ferguson's mother, Helen. She sells crack, Edwards replied. They asked about Minneapolis City Council member Brian Herron. Edwards claimed that Herron smokes crack.

It wouldn't have been hard for Edwards to learn about animosity between Herron and the police gang unit. The tension had been brewing for a year, ever since gang squad members took reporters to an apartment building at 36th and Clinton to see graffiti that police called a sign of impending gang turf war. Mike Martin, an investigator with the gang unit, said the graffiti meant that the Bloods were staking a claim to everything from Lake Street south to 40th Street, from Chicago Avenue west to Interstate 35W.

"Tonight's top story: Frightening evidence a gang war may be about to explode in Minneapolis," KSTP began its 10 p.m. newscast that night. It was echoed by a headline the next day in the Star Tribune. The reports angered Herron and other community leaders, who called their own press conference in front of the apartment building the next day. Some of those present said the graffiti was nothing new, and was usually the handiwork of youngster wannabes. Herron said he believed gangs were a real problem, but if police were worried about a turf war, they shouldn't be publicizing any territorial claims.

The police chief at the time, John Laux, later conceded to Herron that cops didn't think a turf war was brewing. Nonetheless, Police Union President Al Berryman wrote a letter chastising Herron for not helping the police. Several months later, Herron told reporters he'd been advised that some cops might be plotting to frame him. One police officer had come to his office, he claimed, and told him to "watch my back." Another had called him at home to warn him.

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