Typically, after closing arguments have been presented and the case has gone to the jury, a presiding judge has one more duty: She thanks the alternate jurors for sitting through an entire trial only to have no say in the verdict. True to form, as the jury in the Dameion Robinson murder trial filed out this past Wednesday to commence deliberations, District Court Judge Denise Reilly expressed her gratitude to the three alternates who'd endured the monthlong proceedings.
The jurors-in-waiting in the Robinson trial must have been seeking a little more closure. They wanted Reilly to know that they'd have voted to acquit Robinson of the 1997 killing of 25-year-old Derangle Riley. After telling Reilly how they felt, the trio made a beeline for Robinson's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Mary Moriarty, and peppered her with questions about Johnny Edwards, a man whose name had come up repeatedly during the trial. Why, they wanted to know, hadn't Edwards testified?
The answer was simple, Moriarty told them: The prosecution didn't want the jury to know anything about Edwards's background or his career as an informant. "The jurors would have known that Johnny Edwards set up Dameion Robinson," she explains. "And that he had the knowledge and the experience to do it."
Robinson was one of several people who tried to buy crack from Riley last August 23 during a party at the home of a man named Saint Slaughter. According to various witnesses, after a disagreement over the price of the drugs, Robinson got into Riley's car and the two drove off. The next morning Slaughter called police saying he'd found Riley's car down the block with its owner dead inside. That night Edwards was taken into custody as a suspect in a seemingly unrelated robbery and shooting. Edwards insisted he hadn't participated in the crime, though he admitted he'd been present. He named Robinson as his accomplice and said his cohort had also confessed to having murdered Riley. Bullets and shell casings collected at the scene of the robbery were later found to have come from the gun used in the murder.
Edwards was no stranger to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. He'd come to prosecutors' attention after being arrested for robbery in 1995, when he offered to testify against six reputed leaders of a local gang, the Rolling 30s Bloods. With Edwards's help, prosecutors won convictions against three of the men. But the judges in those cases hadn't allowed the defense to present damaging testimony about Edwards's background. Such was not the case in the fourth trial, which resulted in an acquittal; the remaining two cases were dropped when it was learned Edwards had fingered the wrong men. (City Pages has chronicled Edwards's misadventures in numerous stories, most recently "Stool Pigeon," on 2/18.)
Of course, as far as the jury in Robinson's case was concerned, questions about Edwards's reliability as an informant were irrelevant. For reasons he refused to discuss with City Pages, Assistant County Attorney Mike Furnstahl didn't call Edwards as a witness. And Reilly ruled that unless Moriarty wanted to call him herself--a dangerous move for a defense attorney--she wouldn't be permitted to discuss Edwards's background at trial.
Still, Robinson appeared to have some cause for optimism. For one thing, the proceedings, which had been scheduled to begin in February, were postponed when a different judge dismissed the indictment for prosecutorial misconduct. (A second indictment was issued in April.) For another, the murder weapon was never found. Nor were the witnesses present at Saint Slaughter's house on the night of the murder very credible. Some had been smoking crack and had gone without sleep for days, and most contradicted both each other and themselves.
And then there was the mysterious shell casing. After Robinson's arrest, Saint Slaughter called the Minneapolis Police Department to add to his earlier statements: On the night of the murder, he now recalled, Robinson had fired a gun into the air in Slaughter's front yard. Police conducted an exhaustive search for the shell with a metal detector capable of distinguishing the denomination of a coin buried a foot underground. Nothing was found. But hours later Slaughter called police and announced he'd found the casing. When the officers returned, he led to them to a bare patch in the middle of the lawn, where the casing--a match for the spent shell found next to Riley's body--lay in plain view. At trial, prosecutor Furnstahl conceded the casing had probably been planted.
Midway through the proceedings, Judge Reilly ruled that the state had failed to link Robinson to the murder. But rather than dismiss the case, the judge took the unusual step of allowing the presentation of so-called Spriegl evidence, through which Furnstahl was able to bolster his murder case with testimony about the robbery--the one for which Johnny Edwards had been arrested. Such evidence is not usually permitted because it can prejudice a jury, but the Spriegl exception can sometimes be invoked when the prosecution can't otherwise make a case. In this instance it was deemed the only way the state could link Robinson to the gun used in both crimes. "It's always a major issue because you can see how devastating it is," says Steve Simon, a clinical professor of law at the University of Minnesota. "The judge always instructs the jury that they can't convict solely because of Spriegl evidence. But that's like telling the jury, 'Now don't think about pink elephants.'"