Stool Pigeon

Sure, he's got an unfortunate knack for running afoul of the law. But that's nothing compared to his talent for getting himself set free.

During those three months--October, November, and December 1996--Edwards's tab at the Regency grew to more than $4,600, much of it for stops at the restaurant, coffee shop, and the hotel's Hub Cap Pub. He was also given a county-paid account with Blue and White taxi service; records submitted in court by the county attorney's office show he used the cabs to travel from his $79-a-night room to his North Side apartment sometimes several times a day.

Later, when Edwards's car was impounded, Hennepin County paid to get it out and put new plates and tags on it. And after he left the hotel, the county again paid rent to relatives.

By early last year, the county had spent a total of $9,000 on Edwards, while the MPD had given him $1,700 in cash (for what, police records don't say). Court records don't specify how much his protection cost during the following four months, when he waited to testify in several more trials.

While county officials went out of their way to protect him, Edwards didn't act like a man who needed to stay out of sight; rather, he seemed emboldened. In November 1996, Minneapolis police found him and three other men parked near an intersection in the Central neighborhood, aiming a gun equipped with a laser sight. Police turned up three more guns and some ammunition inside the car. When Edwards was taken into custody, police reports show, he protested that the cops were going to have to let him go. He was the star witness, he said, in some big trials underway downtown.

Because Hennepin County would have had a conflict of interest investigating its own snitch, prosecutors sent the gun case to Ramsey County. The prosecutors across the river declined to press charges, reasoning that even though ammunition was found in the pockets of each of the men picked up, there were no prints on the gun.

The Minneapolis police officer who'd arrested the men had another explanation: "We didn't want to charge him," Officer Jeff Werner told City Pages at the time, "because it would have made him look like a bad witness."

At first, the effort the county put into securing Edwards's testimony seemed to pay off. The first three men Edwards testified against were quickly convicted: Ferguson was tried again in the attempted-murder case that earlier ended in a hung jury, and this time he went to prison. His brother Alonzo and another alleged Blood, Shannon Solomon, were found guilty of murder in separate cases. (Alonzo Ferguson's appeal is currently before the state Supreme Court.)

It's standard policy for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, allowing careful scrutiny of witnesses' backgrounds. But because prosecutors argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, his identity stayed secret until the eve of trial in each of the first three Bloods cases. When he took the stand, defense attorneys were ill-prepared to challenge his credibility.

But midway through the Bloods trials, defense attorneys got a break. Charges against the fourth man Edwards had fingered, George Dixon, were dropped in early 1997 when, courthouse sources say, police found out that the killer wasn't Dixon, as Edwards had claimed. (Prosecutors won't comment on the case.) And when the fifth man, Obuatawan Holt, went on trial, the judge ruled that by now everyone involved knew who the prosecution's mystery witness was, so the "veil of secrecy" was no longer needed.

Prosecutors were ordered to open their files on Edwards, and Holt's attorney soon found witnesses to rebut everything he said. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Holt; afterward one of them reportedly said they wouldn't have believed Edwards "if he'd stood in front of us and said he had one leg."

Edwards's most spectacular failure came in the last of the Bloods cases, that of Milton Lewis. Edwards had told police that he'd heard Milton Lewis confess to a drug-related murder. But on the eve of Lewis's trial another man confessed to the crime ("State's Evidence," 4/23/97).

Edwards's own case, meanwhile--the armed robbery that launched his career as an informant--never went to trial. Prosecutors postponed the matter for two years, and last fall dismissed the charges saying they could no longer find his alleged victim.

It doesn't seem fair, Diamond concedes, but it's the way of the world. "In terms of the way the [Bloods] were prosecuted, I can understand why someone wouldn't be happy with what Johnny Edwards got," he says. "But on the other side of that, I think the public outcome justified that."

One attorney who has gone up against Edwards in the past disagrees. "They've watched way too many Elliot Ness movies," says Minneapolis attorney Joe Margulies, "and they've become convinced that the only way to get inside a gang is to get someone [to turn informant]. What makes it worse with Edwards is that it's so obvious he's using them."

"Swans don't swim in sewers" is the phrase cops and prosecutors like to use when asked about snitches. Informants, they say, are an ugly necessity; often they're also the only way to crack gang-related cases.

"When you're talking about gang crimes, one of the things you have to be specialized in is the giving of deals," says Diamond. "The reality is that the person who's an accomplice generally isn't going to walk in and say, 'I think I'll tell you what's going on.' That's not the way things work." Instead, he says, prosecutors offer deals to some criminals in return for information on others. "You find yourself dealing with some people you'd rather not deal with," he acknowledges.

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