He's Sorry

Former gang prosecution snitch Johnny Edwards recants--sort of

Several months later, however, Robinson was tried and acquitted of the robbery and shooting. In the intervening months his attorney had managed to locate two additional witnesses. Both of them testified to having seen another man with Edwards that night. Robinson's second trial ended in an acquittal, which his attorney, Mary Moriarty, proclaimed "a wonderful thing," but which didn't provide any legal leverage for reopening her client's murder case.

Edwards himself never took the stand in that trial, either. In the preceding weeks he had been arrested on drug charges, which Washington County was prosecuting quite vigorously. Hennepin County staffers referred evidence about the botched gun deal to their counterparts in Washington County, too. Edwards ended up pleading guilty in 1999 and was sentenced to some seven years in prison. Even though the facts he'd confessed to differed significantly from the story he'd told about Robinson, Edwards never provided a new account of just who was brandishing the .25.

¬ And there matters might have lain if it hadn't been for John Turnipseed's need to atone for his past. At 48, Turnipseed has both a history of nonviolent felony convictions and a respected place in the community as the head of the Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures, a south Minneapolis faith-based social service agency. An outgrowth of a religious conversion he testified he experienced several years ago, his job is to help men like him foster meaningful relationships with their children.

Dantwon Charles

"My son, I taught him to be a criminal," he testified two weeks ago. "But my life changed. I changed. I changed when I saw Johnny's leg get shot off. And I believe something happened to my son in prison and he changed."

After Edwards went to prison, Turnipseed began making monthly trips to Hutchinson, Kansas, where his son was being held--far away from the men he had informed on. For a long time, he says, he just talked to Edwards about Jesus, and his desire to be a real father to Edwards. Eventually, he says his son told him that he had joined a prison group with religious overtones, the Moorish Americans: "I heard him talk about a relationship with God, and then I heard he had lied [in his testimony], and so that got me started thinking about talking to him." So Turnipseed asked Edwards point blank if he had told the truth. He says his son then admitted his lies but claimed he was scared to recant.

Turnipseed contacted Margulies, who was in the process of trying to get Alonzo Ferguson's case reopened on the grounds that police and prosecutors had failed to disclose the extent of their financial assistance to Edwards during Ferguson's trial. (During trials held after Ferguson's, evidence was introduced showing that officials paid for all kinds of things for Edwards: hotels, cabs, meals, car repairs, and bar bills. He was given spending money, and police helped him to get back $1,400 seized during a drug bust at his house in 1995.) Margulies put that petition on hold and attempted to contact Edwards.

But Turnipseed had also hired his son a lawyer, who feared that Edwards's testimony would expose him to charges of perjury, a felony. Arguing that Turnipseed should then be allowed to testify, Margulies asked for a new trial. Judge Bush denied the petition; Margulies appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The justices agreed with his argument that an exception to the rules prohibiting hearsay should be made; Edwards's Fifth Amendment rights, they concluded, rendered him unavailable and therefore his father could testify.

At the hearing two weeks ago, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Bill Richardson suggested that Edwards was angry with the state for putting him in prison despite his help on the Bloods cases. And with Edwards's release date growing near and his cousin still facing a life sentence, he noted, both Edwards and Turnipseed had strong reasons for recanting falsely.

Margulies argued that the state could easily cut to the chase by giving Edwards, who appears to have slid out from under numerous criminal cases by virtue of his cooperation as an informant, immunity from prosecution for perjury. Surely, Richardson countered, Edwards's attorney had advised him that the penalties for perjury were "pretty minimal."

Bush won't rule on the credibility of John Turnipseed's testimony and Alonzo Ferguson's subsequent petition for a new trial until sometime next year. Whatever he decides will almost certainly be appealed to the state supreme court, which would have to side with Ferguson again before a new trial could be ordered. Most likely, that means Edwards will have finished his sentence and been released by the time Ferguson learns anything definitive.

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