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.

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

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.

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).

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.)

To hear the juror who called City Pages at the conclusion of the trial tell it, the testimony itself might have ended in a not-guilty verdict if it weren't for one last controversial move: At the trial's conclusion, Judge Mabley told the jurors that they could find Ferguson guilty if they believed he had aided or abetted the shooter. Even the prosecutor conceded that there was no testimony placing the gun in Ferguson's hands, the juror said, while there was plenty of evidence that a half-dozen other alleged Bloods fitting Ferguson's general description and sharing his presumed motive were at the scene. But for the two holdouts, the gang enhancement testimony had proven persuasive enough.

After the jurors were excused, a date was set for the first hearing in Ferguson's third trial, angering at least one juror. "How many times can they bring this case to trial?" the juror says. "This is going to take me a long time to accept, that this was a hung jury."

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