Try, Try Again

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

Before Ferguson's trial, prosecutors argued that their star witness was in danger of retaliation, and, in an unusual move, were allowed to cloak his identity until the eve of trial. This left Ferguson's attorney ill- prepared to challenge Edwards's credibility. More controversially, neither Ferguson's attorney nor the jury in that case ever learned that police and prosecutors had paid for all kinds of things for Edwards: hotels, cabs, meals, car repairs, and even bar bills. Police even helped Edwards get back $1,400 seized during a drug raid at his house in 1995. Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Reggie Ferguson and other reputed Bloods were also quickly tried and convicted in much the same manner. But when the fourth of the cases went to trial, that of Ferguson half brother Obuatawan Holt, the judge ruled that Edwards's identity was by then public knowledge and ordered prosecutors to open their files on the informant. Holt's attorney easily discredited Edwards and the jury found Holt not guilty (see "Bad Company," February 26, 1997).

The remaining two Bloods cases--different murders both--fell apart before they even got to trial when police learned that Edwards had named the wrong triggermen (see "State's Evidence," April 23, 1997). Nonetheless, six months later, when Edwards again found himself in jail--this time on charges of attempted murder--police were still willing to deal with him. He insisted that an acquaintance named Dameion Robinson had done the shooting and had confessed to using the same gun in a murder the night before. Prosecutors had figured out not to put Edwards on the stand, however: His patsy was convicted of the murder, but acquitted of the shooting (see "The Plot Thickens," February 10, 1999).

Prosecuters have already tried Alonzo Ferguson twice, and a third trial is likely
Richard Fleischman
Prosecuters have already tried Alonzo Ferguson twice, and a third trial is likely

Edwards himself was ultimately found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to seven years in prison--a sentence he served in other states, far from the men he'd informed on.


In April 2000, six years into his life sentence, Alonzo Ferguson got a break. A local attorney, Joe Margulies, was in the middle of preparing a petition to reopen Ferguson's case on the grounds that officials broke the rules by not disclosing to Ferguson's trial attorney the extent of the financial assistance they'd given Edwards. Edwards's father called Margulies and said his son had changed his tune.

The father, John Turnipseed, had an old rap sheet of his own but had straightened out and gone to work for a faith-based social service agency, where his job was to help men like himself foster meaningful relationships with their children. Accordingly, Turnipseed had been visiting Edwards in prison. During one of those visits, he told Margulies, Edwards confessed he had lied about Ferguson.

"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 testified during the 2002 hearing Margulies eventually won the right to hold. Despite everything, he added, Edwards liked Alonzo Ferguson and felt bad. "Here's a man who's serving a life sentence because of a lie, and my son feels remorse" (see "He's Sorry," December 4, 2002). In April 2003 Ferguson was granted a new trial and, because the court felt the remaining evidence against him was not compelling, was freed on bail.

In January of this year, prosecutors again indicted Ferguson, who had been attending carpentry classes in the meantime. But they added a new twist: In addition to charging him with first-degree murder, they also charged him with committing the murder in order to benefit a gang. Such "enhancement" charges are controversial for a number of reasons, not least because they allow prosecutors to present trial testimony normally deemed too prejudicial for a jury to hear.

And so when Ferguson went back to court last month, jurors heard from a parade of police officers who had crossed paths with the defendant both as a juvenile, before Wheatley's murder, and afterward. No testimony was presented to suggest that he had been charged, let alone convicted, in any of the episodes, but each of the officers testified that Ferguson had a reputation as a gang member.

Jurors also heard from a brand new witness, a man who lived across the street from the house where the shooting took place. Arnold Cannady testified that he had woken up during the argument between Ferguson and Wheatley, went out on his porch and saw Ferguson and another man come running down the street, fire the shots, and run off. Cannady hadn't come forward earlier, he testified, because he was scared.

There were a number of problems with his testimony, however. In addition to contradicting all of the other witnesses' accounts, he claimed no one went into or came out of the house between the time of the argument and the shooting. Also problematic, he placed Ferguson and the other possible shooter in the wrong places. Sgt. Pete Jackson, the investigating officer, later retook the stand and said that he had known about Cannady at the time. He said Cannady had told his story to Wheatley's uncle, who was unable to persuade him to come forward.

(Ironically, there was testimony that George Dixon, one of the men Edwards fingered erroneously in 1996, might have been at the scene. Indeed, in his closing argument, prosecutor Mike Furnstahl declared Dixon one of the two shooters and urged jurors not to speculate whether he had been charged or tried in the matter. He has not.)

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