When her phone rang last Monday, Hennepin County assistant public defender Mary Moriarty was trying to tunnel out from the mound of paperwork that had piled up on her desk during a lengthy criminal trial. A jury had acquitted her client, Dameion Robinson, of charges of attempted murder. That, it turned out, was what the caller wanted to talk about.
He had been a member of the jury, he said, and he wanted Moriarty to know that the panel had been troubled by inconsistencies in the testimony presented at trial. The case involved a charge that Robinson had shot two people during an armed robbery in August of 1997. But, the juror told Moriarty, the contradictions that most worried the jurors concerned a related murder, which Robinson was convicted of committing last summer.
The juror detailed some of his doubts: First, there had been testimony indicating that a key piece of evidence in the murder case had been planted--a probability even the prosecutor acknowledged. And then there was the timing of the events following the robbery. Under the state's theory, Robinson was supposed to have been everywhere at the same time--at one point fleeing a crime scene while simultaneously carrying a pit-bull puppy in a heavy kennel. No way, the juror said. Moriarty listened. Those were the points she'd tried to make in the murder case. Why couldn't the jury have felt the same way then?
Ordinarily, a verdict in one crime doesn't say much about a defendant's other legal entanglements. But the two trials of Dameion Robinson held in Hennepin County District Court in the past eight months were inextricably intertwined: Evidence showed that the two crimes were committed with the same gun. It was the same police informant--a man named Johnny Edwards--who fingered Robinson as the murderer and as one of the robbers. And both cases taken together might yet unravel the most tangled, controversial tale the snitch had ever spun.
It all began during the early evening hours of Sunday, August 24, 1997, when three men reported to police that Edwards and an unknown accomplice had shot and robbed two of them. While his companion did the actual shooting, they said, Edwards brandished a gun. A few hours later, Minneapolis police arrested Edwards after a high-speed chase. They were unable to apprehend two other men who jumped from the car and ran. (Edwards lost one leg after a 1994 drive-by shooting.)
Edwards had been in sticky legal situations before, but had demonstrated an uncanny ability to extricate himself by turning state's evidence. Court records show some 58 charges against Edwards, including many petty and traffic offenses; none of them has ever gone to trial. His most prominent moment as a witness came in 1995 when, after being arrested for another robbery, he ratted on six reputed leaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods whom prosecutors had tried to nail for years ("Get Out of Jail Free," 1/22/97).
Shortly after Edwards was booked into the Hennepin County jail that August night in 1997, he called one of his contacts at the Hennepin County Attorney's office, who asked that a police investigator go talk to Edwards. He was innocent of the robbery, Edwards told the officer, but he knew who'd committed both that crime and a murder the night before: An acquaintance named Dameion Robinson, who he said had confessed as much to him while riding in his car just hours before. Police could check the slugs found at both crime scenes, Edwards added, and they'd find the robbery and the murder had been committed with the same .25-caliber pistol. Robinson was quickly arrested and charged with both crimes; Edwards's case was turned over to Ramsey County, since Hennepin prosecutors figured his history as an informant presented them with a conflict of interest. The prosecutors across the river decided not to file charges.
When Robinson went on trial in June for the murder, assistant county attorney Mike Furnstahl didn't call Edwards as a witness. Appearances by Edwards in other trials had hurt prosecutors' cases when defense attorneys dissected his background. Moriarty tried to call Edwards herself, but the judge turned her down.
Midway through that trial, Judge Denise Reilly ruled that the state had failed to link Robinson to the murder. But rather than dismiss the case, Reilly took an unusual step: She allowed Furnstahl to present so-called Spriegl evidence--testimony that might convince the jury that Robinson was guilty of the robbery, even though he was not on trial for that crime. Such evidence is not usually permitted because it can prejudice a jury, but an exception is sometimes made when the prosecution's case is too weak to stand on its own. Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, Edwards remained a free man and continued to come to the attention of police on a regular basis. Last September he was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession, a felony; a month later he was jailed following a raid on a house police believed was a drug-dealing hub. Again, Hennepin County sent both cases to other prosecutors to avoid a conflict of interest; this time Edwards's files landed in the Washington County Attorney's office, which charged Edwards and three other men with planning the "large-scale distribution" of nearly 63 grams of crack. A hearing in that case is scheduled for February 23; on the same day, Edwards's trial on the cocaine-possession charge is scheduled to begin.