It seems like everybody just wishes he would go away. But nearly four months into his stay in prison for attempted murder, Johnny Edwards's checkered legacy as a police and prosecution informant is still packing Minnesota courthouses with herds of lawyers and reams of documents.
Edwards, the subject of numerous City Pages articles, wasn't in the Hennepin County courtroom last week when Solomon Shannon, age 23, ended up pleading guilty to manslaughter and robbery charges. But his specter as an unusually clever snitch was: Edwards's role in the case had everything to do with why Shannon walked out of what was supposed to be his second murder trial a free man.
Never mind that Edwards was once their "star witness" in a host of trials, Hennepin County prosecutors have done their best to keep him off the stand in recent months. The self-described former gang member, who lost a leg in a 1994 drive-by shooting, did help put Shannon and several other men in prison. But after information surfaced about Edwards's own shadowy background and the inducements he got to testify, he became a courtroom liability.
Indeed, days before Shannon struck his controversial plea bargain, Alonzo Ferguson, another of the men convicted on Edwards's say, asked for a new trial. Ferguson argued that had his attorneys known at the time of his trial all of the information that has surfaced about the snitch in the meantime, Ferguson wouldn't have been found guilty.
Convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, Shannon was the first of the members of the Rolling 30s Bloods who went to prison largely because of Edwards's testimony. Edwards claimed on the stand that he'd heard Shannon bragging about shooting Eric Davis, who, he said, was "taking a dirt nap." The rest of the evidence against Shannon was more problematic. The other key witness, the victim's 11-year-old niece, had failed twice to recognize Shannon: It wasn't until more than a year later that she managed to identify him as the killer.
At Shannon's original trial, prosecutors also introduced evidence linking him to an armed robbery that had occurred five months earlier in the same south Minneapolis neighborhood as had the murder. Although the two crimes had little in common, they argued that both offenses were motivated by Shannon's gang affiliations. A year ago the state supreme court concluded that testimony about the robbery should not have been allowed, and ordered a new trial. (Homicide convictions in Hennepin County are rarely overturned. In the last two years, only four of the more than seventy cases appealed have been reversed.)
Instead of facing another jury, however, Shannon agreed to plead guilty to the less serious crime of manslaughter and to the unrelated robbery. Steve Redding, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Division of the county attorney's office, explains that his staff was reluctant to subject the girl who testified against Shannon three years ago to a new trial. Without her corroborating Edwards's testimony, he says, prosecutors worried that Shannon might end up with a clean record.
"Three people with a lot of experience trying murder cases decided there was almost no chance he would be convicted," says Redding. "The more difficult thing to do was to try to reach a plea bargain which put felonies on his record." At the hearing last week, Shannon admitted he was present when Davis was killed, but insisted he hadn't been the shooter; he also conceded his involvement in the armed robbery. He was sentenced to time served.
That was good news for Alonzo Ferguson. The tale of his fate hinged on what his current attorney, Joe Margulies, calls "the fortuitous appearance of Johnny Earl Edwards." Back in 1995 Edwards was cooling his heels in the Hennepin County Jail facing charges stemming from a drug raid on his Brooklyn Park home and an earlier holdup in Minneapolis. Unable to secure bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about a series of high-profile cases detectives were trying to make involving members of the Rolling 30s Bloods.
County attorneys had already tried the gang's reputed leader, Reggie Ferguson (Alonzo's older brother), on attempted-murder charges, but the trial had ended in a hung jury. Cases against two other reputed Bloods had been dropped. Police had conducted a lengthy surveillance campaign on the Ferguson home, but failed to observe any criminal activity.
Shortly after Edwards's jailhouse call, all six of the alleged Bloods leaders were arrested. Then-county attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a joint press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign. They didn't name the good citizen who'd helped bring about the arrests, but the cops portrayed him as a hero: "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail," one of the investigating officers was quoted as saying. "But there are very few people willing to stick their necks out."
In the following months, officials would spend upward of $9,000 supporting Edwards. According to testimony at the various trials, in addition to paying his rent and fixing his car, taxpayers footed the bill when the informant was moved into a hotel. MPD investigators even asked their Brooklyn Park counterparts to return to Edwards $1,400 they had seized from him during the 1995 drug raid.
At first the effort the county put into securing Edwards's testimony seemed to pay off. The first three men Edwards testified against were quickly convicted: Reggie Ferguson was tried again in the attempted-murder case that had earlier ended in a hung jury, and this time he went to prison. (He has since been released, having served his sentence.) Solomon Shannon and Alonzo Ferguson were found guilty of murder in separate cases.
It is standard policy for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, in order to allow careful background investigations. But prosecutors had argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, and won: His identity stayed secret until the eve of trial in each of the first three Bloods cases. When he took the stand, defense attorneys were ill-prepared to challenge his credibility.
But midway through the Bloods trials, defense attorneys got a break. Charges against the fourth man Edwards had fingered, George Dixon, were dropped in early 1997 when, courthouse sources say, police found out that the killer wasn't Dixon, as Edwards had claimed. (Prosecutors won't comment on the case.) And when the fifth man, Obuatawan Holt, went on trial, the judge ruled that by now everyone involved knew who the prosecution's mystery witness was, so the "veil of secrecy" was no longer needed.
Prosecutors were ordered to open their files on Edwards, and Holt's attorney quickly found witnesses to rebut everything Edwards said. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Holt; afterward one of them reportedly said they wouldn't have believed Edwards "if he'd stood in front of us and said he had one leg" (see City Pages story "Bad Company," February 26, 1997).
But the most spectacular failure in Edwards's downfall came in the last of the Bloods cases, that of Milton Lewis. Edwards had told police that he'd heard Milton Lewis confess to a drug-related murder. Unfortunately for prosecutors, on the eve of Lewis's trial another man confessed to the crime ("State's Evidence," April 23, 1997).
Edwards's own arrests, meanwhile, never went to trial. For two years, prosecutors postponed trying him for the 1995 armed robbery that had launched his career as an informant. In the end they dismissed the charges, saying they could no longer locate his alleged victim. And even as his usefulness to law enforcement was wearing thin, three other cases against him evaporated.
Edwards's last tip for police was his undoing: According to a criminal complaint eventually filed against him, in August 1997 Edwards arranged 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 Robinson was not on trial for that crime. When Robinson did face a jury in the robbery case, earlier this year, he was acquitted. Earlier this month the state supreme court heard arguments in his appeal of his murder conviction.
Prosecutors didn't call Edwards in either of Robinson's trials--presumably because he was now too easy to discredit. During Robinson's second trial, though, his defense attorney subpoenaed the informant. Unbeknownst to the attorney, however, Edwards had been charged in the same crime by the Washington County Attorney's Office. Because of his constitutional right to refuse to incriminate himself, Edwards could not be forced to appear. (Whether he was charged in order to prevent him from appearing is not clear: The Stillwater attorney who prosecuted Edwards has said his Hennepin County colleagues suggested he consider charging the snitch in the attempted murder.) In May Edwards pleaded guilty to shooting two men during the robbery and to an unrelated narcotics charge, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison ("Johnny's Last Song," May 26, 1999). He's serving that sentence in another state.
That might have been the last anyone heard of Edwards. But in addition to the matter of the supreme court decision ordering a new trial for Solomon Shannon, Alonzo Ferguson's original attorney was fuming over what he hadn't known about the informant back when his client was convicted. In an affidavit attached to Ferguson's request for a new trial, defense attorney Frederick Goetz argues that the case surely would have turned out differently for his client had Edwards's background been exposed.
For starters, in 1996 Ferguson had been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Allen Wheatley Jr., who was gunned down in 1994 by a shot fired through the dining-room window in his home. On the day Wheatley arrived in the Twin Cities, he and several of his cousins ran into Alonzo Ferguson. Wheatley was wearing a blue shirt. According to trial testimony, Ferguson told Wheatley that the color of the shirt put him on the wrong side in a local gang rivalry. After Ferguson walked off, Wheatley and one of his cousins got into a heated argument about the shirt.
The gun used in the killing was never recovered, and witnesses' statements conflicted. One of Wheatley's relatives claimed to have seen Ferguson lurking outside the house before the shooting. (At trial the relative claimed he'd never said this.) Others said they had seen someone, too, but thought it was the cousin with whom Wheatley had argued. Before Wheatley died, he told police who arrived at the scene that "it was the Bloods."
The case went uncharged until Edwards's call to police from the jail. He told them he had heard Ferguson, then 20 years old, threaten to "go over there and pop kill that nigger" and that Ferguson had later confessed to him. Despite inconsistencies raised by Edwards's statements, Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Goetz appealed the conviction to the state supreme court, which agreed with his argument that the trial court should not have allowed testimony about Wheatley's dying declaration, but concluded that Ferguson would have been convicted even without that piece of evidence.
In an affidavit attached to Ferguson's current appeal, Goetz argues that if Edwards is no longer considered credible, the state has a pretty thin case against Ferguson. "Edwards's testimony was absolutely critical, since it provided the only direct testimony linking my client to this offense. Because Edwards's testimony was the core of the state's case, I made every effort to successfully attack his credibility on cross-examination. To make this attack, I [asked] for...all evidence that would tend to impeach Edwards's credibility, including, of course, the details of his involvement as a snitch."
Among other facts about Edwards that Goetz says he was not made privy to were the return of the cash confiscated during the raid on Edwards's home, the nature of the financial assistance he was given while preparing to testify for the state, and the fact that police appeared to have protected Edwards from being prosecuted following several arrests. "This information was also critical to the state's case, since they went to great lengths to suggest that Edwards was receiving virtually no benefit in exchange for his testimony," Goetz notes, adding that he was surprised to learn that Edwards's bills included hotel restaurant and bar tabs, and that he was relocated after his wife kicked him out of his house, not, as the jury had been led to believe, because his willingness to testify put him in danger.
Joe Margulies, the attorney handling Ferguson's current pursuit of a new trial, adds another element. "At Mr. Ferguson's trial, the state took great pains to establish the purity of Edwards's motives," Margulies argues in his petition. "They portrayed Edwards as the consummate gang insider, someone to whom Mr. Ferguson would have confessed freely. Just as important, however, they presented Edwards as someone who had rejected his life of crime, and turned his back on his former gang colleagues. Yet Edwards was a liar and a perjurer who supported himself by trafficking marijuana and heroin and who routinely traveled the city armed."
Redding doesn't believe each of Edwards's trips to the witness stand need rehashing: In Shannon's case, he says, the informant had the story at least half right. Edwards had said Shannon was at the scene and was the gunman. Shannon conceded he was indeed there, but denied he did the shooting.
Ferguson's petition will be heard by the same Hennepin County judge who presided over his trial, Phillip Bush. It's unknown when the matter might be resolved; prosecutors are still preparing their response. If the resolution of Solomon Shannon's case is any indication, it's doubtful Edwards would be called to testify at the new trial Ferguson hopes to win. Should Ferguson be retried and acquitted, that would leave Dameion Robinson as the only individual fingered by Edwards still imprisoned.
If the petition should be rejected, Margulies says he will appeal to the state supreme court. "There's just no way anybody should be in prison based on what Johnny Edwards says," Margulies reasons. "And we're hopeful the trial court sees it that way."
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