Snitch Botch

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

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: Reggie Ferguson was tried again in the attempted-murder case that had earlier ended in a hung jury, and this time he went to prison. (He has since been released, having served his sentence.) Solomon Shannon and Alonzo Ferguson were found guilty of murder in separate cases.

It is standard policy for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, in order to allow careful background investigations. But prosecutors had argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, and won: 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 quickly found witnesses to rebut everything Edwards 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" (see City Pages story "Bad Company," February 26, 1997).

But the most spectacular failure in Edwards's downfall 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. Unfortunately for prosecutors, on the eve of Lewis's trial another man confessed to the crime ("State's Evidence," April 23, 1997).

Edwards's own arrests, meanwhile, never went to trial. For two years, prosecutors postponed trying him for the 1995 armed robbery that had launched his career as an informant. In the end they dismissed the charges, saying they could no longer locate his alleged victim. And even as his usefulness to law enforcement was wearing thin, three other cases against him evaporated.

 

Edwards's last tip for police was his undoing: According to a criminal complaint eventually filed against him, in August 1997 Edwards arranged to sell a handgun equipped with a laser sight to three north Minneapolis men. In the middle of the transaction, eyewitnesses told police, Edwards and an accomplice decided to rob the men instead, and the accomplice shot and wounded two of them.

When officers collared Edwards later that night, he claimed that both the robbery and a murder the night before had been committed by his accomplice, a man he identified as Dameion Robinson. Robinson had used the same gun in both crimes, Edwards insisted. Hennepin County prosecutors eventually charged Robinson with both the first-degree murder of Derangle "Dino" Riley and with attempted murder in the botched gun deal.

Robinson was convicted after a judge allowed the prosecutor to present testimony about the armed robbery, even though Robinson was not on trial for that crime. When Robinson did face a jury in the robbery case, earlier this year, he was acquitted. Earlier this month the state supreme court heard arguments in his appeal of his murder conviction.

Prosecutors didn't call Edwards in either of Robinson's trials--presumably because he was now too easy to discredit. During Robinson's second trial, though, his defense attorney subpoenaed the informant. Unbeknownst to the attorney, however, Edwards had been charged in the same crime by the Washington County Attorney's Office. Because of his constitutional right to refuse to incriminate himself, Edwards could not be forced to appear. (Whether he was charged in order to prevent him from appearing is not clear: The Stillwater attorney who prosecuted Edwards has said his Hennepin County colleagues suggested he consider charging the snitch in the attempted murder.) In May Edwards pleaded guilty to shooting two men during the robbery and to an unrelated narcotics charge, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison ("Johnny's Last Song," May 26, 1999). He's serving that sentence in another state.

That might have been the last anyone heard of Edwards. But in addition to the matter of the supreme court decision ordering a new trial for Solomon Shannon, Alonzo Ferguson's original attorney was fuming over what he hadn't known about the informant back when his client was convicted. In an affidavit attached to Ferguson's request for a new trial, defense attorney Frederick Goetz argues that the case surely would have turned out differently for his client had Edwards's background been exposed.

For starters, in 1996 Ferguson had been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Allen Wheatley Jr., who was gunned down in 1994 by a shot fired through the dining-room window in his home. On the day Wheatley arrived in the Twin Cities, he and several of his cousins ran into Alonzo Ferguson. Wheatley was wearing a blue shirt. According to trial testimony, Ferguson told Wheatley that the color of the shirt put him on the wrong side in a local gang rivalry. After Ferguson walked off, Wheatley and one of his cousins got into a heated argument about the shirt.

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