Snitch Botch

When police informant Johnny Edwards sang, men went to prison. Now his tune is coming back to haunt the courts.

It seems like everybody just wishes he would go away. But nearly four months into his stay in prison for attempted murder, Johnny Edwards's checkered legacy as a police and prosecution informant is still packing Minnesota courthouses with herds of lawyers and reams of documents.

Edwards, the subject of numerous City Pages articles, wasn't in the Hennepin County courtroom last week when Solomon Shannon, age 23, ended up pleading guilty to manslaughter and robbery charges. But his specter as an unusually clever snitch was: Edwards's role in the case had everything to do with why Shannon walked out of what was supposed to be his second murder trial a free man.

Never mind that Edwards was once their "star witness" in a host of trials, Hennepin County prosecutors have done their best to keep him off the stand in recent months. The self-described former gang member, who lost a leg in a 1994 drive-by shooting, did help put Shannon and several other men in prison. But after information surfaced about Edwards's own shadowy background and the inducements he got to testify, he became a courtroom liability.

Indeed, days before Shannon struck his controversial plea bargain, Alonzo Ferguson, another of the men convicted on Edwards's say, asked for a new trial. Ferguson argued that had his attorneys known at the time of his trial all of the information that has surfaced about the snitch in the meantime, Ferguson wouldn't have been found guilty.

Convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, Shannon was the first of the members of the Rolling 30s Bloods who went to prison largely because of Edwards's testimony. Edwards claimed on the stand that he'd heard Shannon bragging about shooting Eric Davis, who, he said, was "taking a dirt nap." The rest of the evidence against Shannon was more problematic. The other key witness, the victim's 11-year-old niece, had failed twice to recognize Shannon: It wasn't until more than a year later that she managed to identify him as the killer.

At Shannon's original trial, prosecutors also introduced evidence linking him to an armed robbery that had occurred five months earlier in the same south Minneapolis neighborhood as had the murder. Although the two crimes had little in common, they argued that both offenses were motivated by Shannon's gang affiliations. A year ago the state supreme court concluded that testimony about the robbery should not have been allowed, and ordered a new trial. (Homicide convictions in Hennepin County are rarely overturned. In the last two years, only four of the more than seventy cases appealed have been reversed.)

Instead of facing another jury, however, Shannon agreed to plead guilty to the less serious crime of manslaughter and to the unrelated robbery. Steve Redding, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Division of the county attorney's office, explains that his staff was reluctant to subject the girl who testified against Shannon three years ago to a new trial. Without her corroborating Edwards's testimony, he says, prosecutors worried that Shannon might end up with a clean record.

"Three people with a lot of experience trying murder cases decided there was almost no chance he would be convicted," says Redding. "The more difficult thing to do was to try to reach a plea bargain which put felonies on his record." At the hearing last week, Shannon admitted he was present when Davis was killed, but insisted he hadn't been the shooter; he also conceded his involvement in the armed robbery. He was sentenced to time served.

That was good news for Alonzo Ferguson. The tale of his fate hinged on what his current attorney, Joe Margulies, calls "the fortuitous appearance of Johnny Earl Edwards." Back in 1995 Edwards was cooling his heels in the Hennepin County Jail facing charges stemming from a drug raid on his Brooklyn Park home and an earlier holdup in Minneapolis. Unable to secure bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about a series of high-profile cases detectives were trying to make involving members of the Rolling 30s Bloods.

County attorneys had already tried the gang's reputed leader, Reggie Ferguson (Alonzo's older brother), on attempted-murder charges, but the trial had ended in a hung jury. Cases against two other reputed Bloods had been dropped. Police had conducted a lengthy surveillance campaign on the Ferguson home, but failed to observe any criminal activity.

Shortly after Edwards's jailhouse call, all six of the alleged Bloods leaders were arrested. Then-county attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a joint press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign. They didn't name the good citizen who'd helped bring about the arrests, but the cops portrayed him as a hero: "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail," one of the investigating officers was quoted as saying. "But there are very few people willing to stick their necks out."

In the following months, officials would spend upward of $9,000 supporting Edwards. According to testimony at the various trials, in addition to paying his rent and fixing his car, taxpayers footed the bill when the informant was moved into a hotel. MPD investigators even asked their Brooklyn Park counterparts to return to Edwards $1,400 they had seized from him during the 1995 drug raid.

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