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

"The gang is a hydra-headed monster that can strike anywhere," the manual goes on to suggest with regard to closing arguments. "Use the gang affiliation as your primary weapon of argument."

Pete Connors, the head of Hennepin County's Adult Prosecution Division, won't comment on Edwards's role in the Bloods cases. But he will say that informants are an important tool for prosecutors looking to secure convictions in gang cases.

Connors, like most prosecutors, says he is well aware of the danger that informants will make their stories fit the state's theory about a crime. "We counter that by saying we've looked into the information they've given us and the information is credible," he says. "Are they giving information you had to be there in order to know?"

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Connors says informants are one of several tools Hennepin County increasingly is using to prosecute gang cases. Others include using grand juries to get testimony from people who won't talk to investigators and granting immunity on prosecution for other crimes in exchange for testimony.

The law creating the prosecutor's certificate, which keeps witnesses' names secret until the last minute, has been around for years. The veil of secrecy hasn't made witnesses more likely to come forward, says Connors. "But it makes them more likely to stay with us. It also keeps them from being harassed, threatened, intimidated, and discouraged--and those are huge problems for us."

The county will continue to use informants, he says, but will be careful as it does so. "This office absolutely believes that everyone is entitled to a fair trial," says Connors. "We're not rabid dogs looking to convict people just because they're gang members. First we look at, 'Did they commit a real crime?' And then we prosecute them for that and not for being gang members."

Nonetheless, defense attorneys who've worked on gang cases here say if there's anything the Bloods cases demonstrate, it's that having a client identified as a gang member can be fatal to an otherwise healthy defense.

"It's a deliberate attempt to whip the jury into a furor," says Frederick Goetz, the attorney who defended Reggie and Alonzo Ferguson. "It dehumanizes people, makes them seem like predators. They are entitled to the same rights as anybody else and can be wrongly accused like anyone else."

Indeed, there are plenty of people who say gang affiliation is effectively a crime, one serious enough to land someone on a list of prime police targets. Many say the police were determined to nail the Fergusons, and by extension, Oba Holt.

And if the police and county weren't targeting the Fergusons, why weren't the three other people Johnny Edwards placed at the scene of Ken Phillips's shooting arrested and prosecuted--or even questioned? Two of the men have long criminal records, in one case including several violent assaults. One also has recently been seen in the company of the man gang squad investigators previously identified as Holt's near-double.

Prosecutors say they're not sure why the other men Edwards identified as being at the scene of the Phillips shooting were never pursued. Neither is Goetz, though he has an idea: "All I know is that with the exception of Alizia Black, the only people they've ever come after have the last name Ferguson."

In the year that's elapsed since Edwards made his deal with prosecutors, he's had a number of other encounters with police. A month after police found Edwards and his cohorts with the tricked-out handguns, the northside house where he and his wife lived burned down.

Edwards believes someone threw a Molotov cocktail through a window in retaliation for his testimony. The Minneapolis Fire Department turned the case over to the police arson investigation unit, which will confirm only that "there's a lot of speculation" surrounding the fire, but
no suspects.

After Edwards started receiving payments from the County Attorney's Office, he complained to police that he was mugged on the north side by three men he didn't know but could tell were Crips. He said the men stole $1,000. Other police reports show that Edwards's wife has complained to police that during the last year valuable electronics have repeatedly been taken from her house.

In June, she also filed a complaint alleging that he had attacked her with a knife. But there is no indication in police records that he was ever arrested. Meanwhile, several other cases involving Edwards are on hold. Charges that he was dealing marijuana won't be considered until after the Bloods cases are over. The charges stem from a police raid on Edwards's former house in Brooklyn Park that turned up $1,400 in cash and a large quantity of marijuana. When he goes on trial in April, in addition to the holdup that started his career as an informant, Edwards will also face two other theft charges and a dozen charges of driving on a suspended license.

"Why on earth do you believe this guy?" asks defense attorney Joe Margulies. "They've turned a blind eye to whether they should be critical of Johnny Edwards because there's a lot of political pressure to do something about this being 'Murderapolis.'"

City Pages news intern Todd Renschler contributed to this story.

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