Johnny's Last Song

In the end, Johnny Edwards's day in court lasted about 20 minutes. The longtime police and prosecution informant's career came to an anticlimactic end last week when he pleaded guilty to shooting two men in 1997, and to narcotics charges stemming from an arrest in '98. Although court records show a cumulative total of 60 separate charges against him (many of them related to petty and traffic offenses), the plea bargain represents the first time Edwards has been unable to evade prosecution.

At a plea hearing held in Hennepin County's drug court May 19, Edwards bore little resemblance to the self-described reformed gang member who took the witness stand during the high-profile Rolling 30s Bloods cases of 1996. While old booking photos show a slender, muscular 26-year-old, after four months in jail Edwards's face was puffy and his normally close-cropped hair was long enough to support a pick. After listening to Judge Kevin Burke hand down a sentence of slightly more than seven years, Edwards, who lost a leg in a 1994 drive-by shooting, waved to family members in the courtroom and turned his wheelchair toward a rear door from where sheriff's deputies would take him back to jail. "Bye" was all he said as he disappeared.

The tale that came to a close that day had begun in 1995, when Edwards was arrested in connection with an armed robbery. Once in jail, he told police he could help them resolve some high-profile gang cases that had embarrassed the department for months. Even though his testimony against the alleged Bloods did not always prove reliable--a juror in one trial said, "[We] wouldn't have believed him if he'd stood in front of us and said he had one leg"--the series of trials resulted in four convictions. Charges against Edwards in the '95 robbery and other incidents were eventually dropped.

For a while, it looked as if Edwards would walk away from legal consequences in the August 1997 shooting as well. According to the criminal complaint eventually filed against him, that incident had begun with Edwards arranging to sell a handgun equipped with a laser sight to three North Minneapolis men. In the middle of the transaction, eyewitnesses told police, Edwards and an accomplice decided to rob the men instead, and the accomplice shot and wounded two of them.

When officers collared Edwards later that night, he claimed that both the robbery and a murder the night before had been committed by his accomplice, a man he identified as Dameion Robinson. Robinson had used the same gun in both crimes, Edwards insisted. Hennepin County prosecutors eventually charged Robinson with both the first-degree murder of Derangle "Dino" Riley, and with attempted murder in the botched gun deal.

Robinson was convicted after a judge allowed the prosecutor to present testimony about the armed robbery, even though he was not on trial for that crime. When Robinson did face a jury in the robbery case, earlier this year, he was acquitted. His murder conviction is now on appeal to the state Supreme Court, which has been asked to consider whether it was proper to allow evidence about a crime in which he was later found not guilty.

Just as Robinson was going on trial for the robbery, prosecutors in Washington County--to whom Hennepin County attorneys had given the case because of their conflict of interest prosecuting their own informant--charged Edwards with attempted murder for his role in the incident and, in a separate case, with narcotics felonies connected to his arrest last fall at a house police said was a crack hub.

In contrast to the cases against Robinson, those against Edwards seemed airtight. While the shooting victims gave conflicting descriptions of Edwards's accomplice, none hesitated to identify him; one noted that the way he'd "hopped away" from the scene was unmistakable.

But those witnesses never had a chance to tell their story to a jury. The week Edwards's trial was scheduled to begin, his attorney, Manly Zimmerman, and prosecutor Richard Hodsdon told the judge that they had reached a bargain under which Edwards would plead guilty to one count each of first- and second-degree assault, as well as second-degree narcotics possession.

At the plea hearing, Edwards blamed others for his troubles. It was Robinson who initiated the gun deal, he told Judge Kevin Burke. He had merely been examining the weapon when Robinson suddenly pulled out his own pistol and attacked the men. As for how police had found him sitting at a friend's kitchen table with nearly 63 grams of crack, Edwards explained, he had been watching the drugs for someone else who had gone out on an errand. (In April Edwards was found guilty of the drug charge in a jury trial, but the conviction was thrown out on a technicality.) Eventually, Burke asked Edwards whether the allegations in the complaints against him--whose details differed in many respects from the stories he'd told--were true. He said yes.

Had Edwards been convicted of attempted murder, he would have faced more than 12 years in prison. By pleading guilty to first-degree assault, he cut his sentence almost in half. With time off for good behavior, Edwards could be free in four and a half years. Attorneys say his plea will have no impact on Robinson's appeal.

Before Judge Burke pronounced the sentence, Edwards's attorney said his client wanted him to make a statement. "He's been on the street since he was 13," said Zimmerman. "He learned how to survive on the street and he's made some wrong choices." But, the attorney added, Edwards had tried to make amends by serving as an informant. Because of the danger of retribution, Zimmerman continued, his client "has in the past been in fear of his life," and was now "worried about his safety" in a Minnesota prison. Burke agreed to write a letter to the state's Department of Corrections, suggesting that he be incarcerated far away from the men his testimony sent to the slammer.

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