Snitch Botch

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

The gun used in the killing was never recovered, and witnesses' statements conflicted. One of Wheatley's relatives claimed to have seen Ferguson lurking outside the house before the shooting. (At trial the relative claimed he'd never said this.) Others said they had seen someone, too, but thought it was the cousin with whom Wheatley had argued. Before Wheatley died, he told police who arrived at the scene that "it was the Bloods."

The case went uncharged until Edwards's call to police from the jail. He told them he had heard Ferguson, then 20 years old, threaten to "go over there and pop kill that nigger" and that Ferguson had later confessed to him. Despite inconsistencies raised by Edwards's statements, Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Goetz appealed the conviction to the state supreme court, which agreed with his argument that the trial court should not have allowed testimony about Wheatley's dying declaration, but concluded that Ferguson would have been convicted even without that piece of evidence.

In an affidavit attached to Ferguson's current appeal, Goetz argues that if Edwards is no longer considered credible, the state has a pretty thin case against Ferguson. "Edwards's testimony was absolutely critical, since it provided the only direct testimony linking my client to this offense. Because Edwards's testimony was the core of the state's case, I made every effort to successfully attack his credibility on cross-examination. To make this attack, I [asked] for...all evidence that would tend to impeach Edwards's credibility, including, of course, the details of his involvement as a snitch."

Among other facts about Edwards that Goetz says he was not made privy to were the return of the cash confiscated during the raid on Edwards's home, the nature of the financial assistance he was given while preparing to testify for the state, and the fact that police appeared to have protected Edwards from being prosecuted following several arrests. "This information was also critical to the state's case, since they went to great lengths to suggest that Edwards was receiving virtually no benefit in exchange for his testimony," Goetz notes, adding that he was surprised to learn that Edwards's bills included hotel restaurant and bar tabs, and that he was relocated after his wife kicked him out of his house, not, as the jury had been led to believe, because his willingness to testify put him in danger.

Joe Margulies, the attorney handling Ferguson's current pursuit of a new trial, adds another element. "At Mr. Ferguson's trial, the state took great pains to establish the purity of Edwards's motives," Margulies argues in his petition. "They portrayed Edwards as the consummate gang insider, someone to whom Mr. Ferguson would have confessed freely. Just as important, however, they presented Edwards as someone who had rejected his life of crime, and turned his back on his former gang colleagues. Yet Edwards was a liar and a perjurer who supported himself by trafficking marijuana and heroin and who routinely traveled the city armed."

Redding doesn't believe each of Edwards's trips to the witness stand need rehashing: In Shannon's case, he says, the informant had the story at least half right. Edwards had said Shannon was at the scene and was the gunman. Shannon conceded he was indeed there, but denied he did the shooting.

Ferguson's petition will be heard by the same Hennepin County judge who presided over his trial, Phillip Bush. It's unknown when the matter might be resolved; prosecutors are still preparing their response. If the resolution of Solomon Shannon's case is any indication, it's doubtful Edwards would be called to testify at the new trial Ferguson hopes to win. Should Ferguson be retried and acquitted, that would leave Dameion Robinson as the only individual fingered by Edwards still imprisoned.

If the petition should be rejected, Margulies says he will appeal to the state supreme court. "There's just no way anybody should be in prison based on what Johnny Edwards says," Margulies reasons. "And we're hopeful the trial court sees it that way."

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