By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Johnny Edwards was in trouble again. Here he was in the Hennepin County jail; his car was a wreck, his money was gone, and three people were saying he'd robbed them at gunpoint. For someone less experienced in the ways of the criminal-justice system it could have been a downright scary scenario.
But Edwards knew just what to do. From jail last August 25, he called the Hennepin County attorney's office--collect--and asked for investigator Bob Nelson. The two had talked a lot, sometimes daily, during the previous two years, as Edwards had supplied Nelson with confidential information about a series of high-profile gang cases.
Edwards told Nelson he'd had nothing to do with this robbery--but that, as luck would have it, he knew who'd done it. Better yet, he promised, "I even know about a murder that he did, the same dude, the night before that."
To judge from the transcript of the conversation, Nelson didn't entirely buy Edwards's claim. But he was interested enough to send Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jim DeConcini, an officer Edwards knew and trusted, to the jail.
By this time, police had already gathered a pretty consistent picture of the robbery and subsequent events. According to police reports in court files, three witnesses had told them that Edwards and a friend had come to a North Minneapolis apartment on August 24--to sell a gun, one of them said--and robbed everyone present. As Edwards fled with the witnesses' cash, they told police, his accomplice got nervous and shot two of them. Though none of the witnesses had ever seen the accomplice before, two of them said they had known Edwards for years. They'd have been hard-pressed to mistake him for someone else; a 1993 shooting had cost him his right leg.
Hours later police spotted the brown station wagon--Edwards's '79 Impala--in which the witnesses reported the alleged assailants had fled. A high-speed chase ensued, and the car plowed into a garage. Two unidentified men jumped out of the front seats and ran in opposite directions. Edwards and another passenger in the back seat, a 13-year-old boy, were arrested.
Edwards's account, by contrast, went like this: He and the 13-year-old were hanging out outside the house where the robbery took place when they heard a gunshot. Within moments they saw an acquaintance named Dameion Robinson running away. A few hours later, Edwards told DeConcini, he and his friend ran into Robinson and another man, and they all got into Edwards's car.
As they were driving around, Edwards claimed, Robinson slid into the back seat next to him. He talked about how Edwards had informed on a lot of people, who didn't like him as a result; and how nevertheless, Robinson would tell Edwards about committing a robbery earlier that night, and a murder the night before.
"He said--these are his exact words--'I ain't even gonna try to do shit to you,'" Edwards said. "'I know you seen what happened, and I know [police] gonna come to you about it. I ain't even gonna try to touch you, man. But don't say nothing about what happened, man, don't tell them what happened, don't say my name at all.'"
At that exact moment, Edwards went on, an MPD squad car began chasing them. When Edwards's station wagon crashed into a garage, Robinson leapt out of the back seat and fled. As for the nearly $250 found in Edwards's sock and his pocket--almost the amount the victims claimed had been taken from them--he explained that he always carried extra cash.
Despite the discrepancies between Edwards's story and the accounts of the eyewitnesses, the Hennepin County attorney's office took his version of events seriously. Acting on a tip from another informant, they'd already arrested Robinson on suspicion he committed the murder. Now they compared the ammunition used in the murder to the slugs left at the robbery scene. They appeared to match. Police went to re-interview the robbery witnesses, who'd earlier said they had no idea who the shooter was; when shown Robinson's picture, they all identified him.
Robinson is scheduled to stand trial March 6 for two counts of attempted murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, and one count of first-degree murder.
Edwards, for his part, wasn't charged with anything--just as he wasn't the previous time he'd been arrested for robbery, or the time the cops picked him up with loaded, unlicensed guns. In fact, Edwards's record shows that he has a remarkable way of showing up in legally compromising situations, and walking away from them without so much as a misdemeanor charge. It's almost as if, in the words of one attorney who has faced Edwards in the courtroom, he has a "walk-on-water pass." (City Pages was unable to interview Edwards for this story; the phone number he provided to police after he was arrested has been disconnected, and the prosecutors and cops who talked to him claim they can't even officially acknowledge that he exists.)
Confidential informants have always been a part of police work. But it wasn't until recently that authorities--faced with increased pressure to do something about violent crime, gangs, and drug-dealing--made them a central part of the criminal-justice system. For years now, federal prosecutors have held out snitching as the only way for criminal defendants to avoid tough mandatory sentences. In Minnesota, the push for doing the same has been led by Hennepin County Attorney and DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Freeman.