By Chris Parker
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Each time the man on the stand opened his mouth, the people in the packed-to-capacity gallery shifted forward in their seats, straining to hear his answer. But each time, all the witness said was, "I plead the Fifth Amendment." Forty-six times Johnny Earl Edwards, the infamous star witness in a series of high-profile Minneapolis gang prosecutions, declined to answer questions about the truth of his past testimony.
Edwards was in court again two weeks ago in relation to Alonzo Ferguson's motion for a new trial. Ferguson, now 26, was convicted in 1996 of murdering a Chicago man, and Edwards's testimony had been the linchpin in the state's case. Six years later Ferguson's attorney, Joe Margulies, believed he finally had solid evidence that Edwards had framed his client.
After Edwards was excused, his father, John Turnipseed, entered the witness box and told the lengthy story of what he claimed was Edwards's change of heart. In April of 2000, Turnipseed testified, he visited his son in prison. During the visit, he said, Edwards admitted he had lied when he fingered Ferguson for the murder of Allen Wheatley Jr. It was a revenge thing: Edwards had lost a leg as the result of a 1993 gang shooting, and he was angry with the cousins he'd grown up with--especially Reggie Ferguson and his brother Alonzo--for not striking back at the men who'd shot him.
"Johnny and Alonzo were feuding when the murder took place. One side of the family was mad at [Johnny], and he was mad at them," Turnipseed explained. "When Little Johnny's leg got shot off...he was looking for his family to right this wrong 'cause the guys who shot him were still out on the street. He felt that Reggie and James [Ferguson] and the cousins should have retaliated and they didn't."
But despite it all, Edwards likes Alonzo Ferguson, Turnipseed continued, and in the years since Ferguson's conviction Edwards has felt bad about his testimony. "Here's a man who's serving a life sentence because of a lie," he said, "and my son feels remorse."
Edwards had not come forward before his conversation with his father because "he was afraid to make the police look foolish," according to Turnipseed's testimony. "He was scared of what the police and prosecutors would say," the father elaborated. "What he's worried about is, there's a felony charge that goes with recanting."
Turnipseed's performance on the stand was the kind of spectacle that causes nightmares for any prosecutor who has ever relied on a jailhouse snitch to make a case. In recent years, the number of wrongful convictions nationwide based at least in part on the testimony of jailhouse informants has mushroomed. Last year, after it was discovered that such evidence had been used in the erroneous conviction of five men on death row, Illinois moved toward placing strict limits on the practice. Earlier, the same reliance on informants forced prosecutors in Los Angeles to revisit 130 old criminal convictions.
Edwards's case log is modest by comparison. Since he first began resolving his own legal problems by fingering other alleged criminals in 1995, his statements have resulted in the filing of charges in eight cases, six of them high-profile gang prosecutions. But Edwards's testimony has secured just four convictions, one of which was later overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"Johnny's testimony shows in general the danger of relying on jailhouse informants," says Margulies. "The pressure on people in custody to cooperate with the state is enormous. What this case demonstrates is the peril of using this kind of witness." If prosecutors were eager to get to the bottom of things, he adds, they would grant Edwards immunity from prosecution on perjury charges and invite him to set the record straight once and for all.
¬ On September 24, 1994, 21-year-old Allen Wheatley Jr. arrived in Minneapolis from Chicago with his father and cousin to visit relatives. At some point in the evening, the visitors and their hosts took a walk. They ran into Ferguson, who was a friend of Allen Wheatley's cousin Prentice Wheatley. Ferguson told Allen Wheatley that he might want to take off his blue shirt because he was walking around in territory claimed by the Rolling 30s Bloods, an outfit that did not like to see blue on its turf. Wheatley retorted that he'd wear whatever he wanted. Ferguson left.
Wheatley's relatives thought Ferguson simply had been offering friendly advice, and back at their house they got into a heated argument. Wheatley was crossing the dining room when seven shots were fired through the window. One shot struck him, and he died a few hours later.
The window blinds were tightly closed, so no one saw the shooter. The gun used in the killing was never recovered, and witnesses' statements conflicted. One of Wheatley's cousins first claimed to have seen Ferguson lurking outside the house before the shooting but changed his story at trial. Others said they had seen someone, too, but thought it was a cousin with whom Wheatley had argued. The case went uncharged for nearly two years until what Margulies has called "the fortuitous appearance of Johnny Edwards."