He's Sorry

Former gang prosecution snitch Johnny Edwards recants--sort of

In late 1995, Edwards found himself in jail, charged with a holdup and with possession of marijuana. Unable to make bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about crimes committed by the Fergusons and some of their reputed gang associates. The cases were political hotcakes: A few months before, a wave of gang-related violence had prompted the New York Times to label the city "Murderapolis," and nailing the Bloods had become a top priority.

It wasn't proving easy, however. Before Edwards came forward, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office had tried and failed to prosecute three of the Bloods' reputed leaders, most famously Reggie Ferguson. But Edwards's jailhouse call led to the arrest of six alleged Bloods leaders. Then-County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign.

Edwards told police that before Wheatley was killed, Edwards had heard Alonzo Ferguson threaten to "go over there and pop kill that nigger," and that Ferguson had later confessed to him. Despite inconsistencies in Edwards's statements, Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Two other men Edwards fingered were quickly convicted of other offenses. One was Reggie Ferguson, who was finally found guilty of attempted murder. (He has since been released, having served his sentence, and was in the courtroom when Edwards and his father testified.)

The convictions were secured, however, before anything was known about the state's star witness. It's standard practice for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, so each side can investigate the other's witnesses. But prosecutors had argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, and thus they were allowed to cloak his identity until the eve of trial in each of the first three cases. So when he took the stand, defense attorneys were ill-prepared to challenge his credibility.

When the Fergusons' half-brother, Obuatawan Holt, went on trial, the judge ruled that the "veil of secrecy" was no longer justified. Prosecutors were ordered to open their files on Edwards. Holt's attorney quickly found witnesses to rebut everything the informant said, and the jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Holt (see "Bad Company," February 26, 1997).

Charges against a fourth man Edwards had fingered, George Dixon, were dropped when, courthouse sources say, police found out that the killer wasn't Dixon, as Edwards had claimed. Within weeks, a fifth case had fallen apart: Edwards had alleged that a man named Milton Lewis had confessed a drug-related murder to him. But on the eve of Lewis's trial, another man confessed to the crime (see "State's Evidence," April 23, 1997).

The sixth man--actually the first of the Bloods to go to trial--was Solomon Shannon. Edwards claimed that he'd heard Shannon bragging about a murder. There was another witness, but she had proven unreliable, making the informant's testimony crucial. Two years after Shannon's conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that a mistake had been made--unrelated to Edwards's performance--and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors said they were reluctant to subject the other witness to another trial, and without her corroborating Edwards's testimony, they conceded that they probably wouldn't win. Shannon pleaded guilty to the less serious crime of manslaughter and to an unrelated robbery in exchange for a sentence of time served. (He admitted he was present at the time of the shooting, but he said he wasn't the trigger man.)

¬ 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 never took the stand in the case that was his undoing. On the evening of August 24, 1997, three men reported to police that Edwards and an unknown accomplice had robbed them. Edwards, they said, brandished a gun while his companion shot two of them. Hours later, Minneapolis police arrested Edwards after a high-speed chase. They were unable to apprehend two other men, who had jumped from the car and run.

After Edwards was booked into jail that night, he called one of his contacts at the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, who sent over a police investigator. Edwards told the officer that he was innocent, but that during the chase an acquaintance named Dameion Robinson had confessed to both the robbery and a murder the night before. Police could check the slugs found at both crime scenes, Edwards added, and they'd find they all came from the same .25-caliber pistol. Robinson was charged with both crimes. Edwards's history as an informant presented Hennepin prosecutors with a conflict of interest, so his case was turned over to Ramsey County, which decided not to file charges.

Robinson was tried first for the murder, an alleged drug deal gone bad. No direct physical evidence linked Robinson to the killing of Derangle "Dino" Riley. Instead, it was testimony about the robbery the next day that made the state's case. Since slugs recovered from that crime scene matched the bullets used to kill Riley, no information about Edwards's dubious background was presented at trial. Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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