Try, Try Again

The courts are determined to make a 10-year-old murder charge stick

Ten years and six days after Allen Wheatley Jr.'s death, one of the jurors in the trial of the man charged with his murder jumped out of bed, anxious to see the newspaper account of the case. The trial had ended in a hung jury the night before, and the juror was quite sure the 12 anonymous citizens on the panel had heard only a fraction of the story. The newspaper did in fact contain new details, including the fact that this had been the second trial of the defendant, Alonzo Ferguson, and that prosecutors now were planning to try Ferguson again.

The juror couldn't believe it. Ten people had just spent the better part of two days locked in a room at Hennepin County District Court, trying to convince two holdouts to find Ferguson not guilty of the 1994 murder they'd just examined in excruciating detail. The arguments were pitched--so much so that the juror didn't want names or even gender mentioned in this article--and in the end they told Judge Daniel Mabley they couldn't reach a verdict.

According to the juror's account, not even the holdouts thought Ferguson had actually killed Wheatley, but the two were willing to convict him based on their interpretation of Mabley's instruction that they should find Ferguson guilty if they believed he aided the killer. The state had proven that much, the holdouts reasoned: They believed Ferguson was a member of the Rolling 30s Bloods, and that Bloods had killed Wheatley.

This juror wasn't ready to accept even that much. But even if it were true, testimony over the past 10 days had placed too many other alleged gang members at the scene, the juror explains now, while not offering up any believable eyewitnesses to Ferguson's participation.

"It's irritating to me that the state can put 12 individuals in this position when they have a big puzzle with most of the pieces missing," the juror complains. "I don't know how the state can spend the money to try this again and again."

Doubtless Ferguson, 28, is wondering the same thing.

 

On September 24, 1994, 21-year- old Allen Wheatley Jr. drove from Chicago to Minneapolis with his father and cousin to visit relatives. In the middle of the night the group arrived at the home of one of Wheatley's uncles, located on the 3700 block of Fourth Avenue South. At about 4:00 a.m. the men, including Wheatley's cousin, Prentice Wheatley, set out for the home of a bootlegger about a block and a half away. On the way back, they ran into Ferguson, a friend of Prentice Wheatley's.

Ferguson told the Chicago cousins that they might want to take off their blue shirts, because the neighborhood was territory claimed by the Bloods, who did not like to see blue on their turf. Allen Wheatley snapped that he'd wear whatever he pleased. The exchange that followed has been described variously as a tense conversation and a heated argument, but by all accounts it ended the same way: Ferguson left and the Chicago cousins took off their shirts.

Inside the Wheatley home another argument ensued. The visiting cousins thought Prentice Wheatley should have stood up for them. Prentice Wheatley left, and was followed soon after by two of the uncles who drove to Super America to buy cigarettes; on their way out, they saw him talking to several young men in cars in the alley behind his house. Shortly afterward, someone standing in the side yard fired seven shots through the dining room window; whether the killer could see through the blinds and was aiming remains in dispute. One bullet struck Allen Wheatley Jr., who died at the hospital later that morning. One of his uncles claimed to have seen two people in the side yard and later named Ferguson as one of them.

Police questioned a number of suspects, including Ferguson, but arrested no one. The crime was added to a growing list of unsolved homicides that were quickly adding up to a political crisis for Minneapolis leadership: An unprecedented wave of gang-related violence that year prompted the New York Times to eventually label the city "Murderapolis." Police and prosecutors were under enormous pressure to shut down the Bloods and make cases against several members of Ferguson's family, including his brother Reggie, the gang's reputed leader.

And so it must have seemed like manna from heaven when, in late 1995, a onetime gang member called police from the payphone at the Hennepin County jail and said he had information against six Bloods, including Alonzo Ferguson and two of his brothers. Mike Freeman and Robert Olson, then the Hennepin County attorney and Minneapolis police chief, respectively, called a press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign.

Officials might have spent a little more time considering the credibility of their new star witness, however. Johnny Edwards had found himself in jail charged with drug possession and a holdup, and no way to make bail. And, Edwards's father would later testify, he happened to be enraged at the Bloods for failing to retaliate when Edwards's leg was shot off in a 1993 gang dispute. Edwards told police that before Wheatley's murder, he heard Ferguson threaten to kill Wheatley, and that Ferguson later confessed to Edwards.

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