The Plot Thickens

If the order of Dameion Robinson's two trials had been reversed, he might be a free man

When her phone rang last Monday, Hennepin County assistant public defender Mary Moriarty was trying to tunnel out from the mound of paperwork that had piled up on her desk during a lengthy criminal trial. A jury had acquitted her client, Dameion Robinson, of charges of attempted murder. That, it turned out, was what the caller wanted to talk about.

He had been a member of the jury, he said, and he wanted Moriarty to know that the panel had been troubled by inconsistencies in the testimony presented at trial. The case involved a charge that Robinson had shot two people during an armed robbery in August of 1997. But, the juror told Moriarty, the contradictions that most worried the jurors concerned a related murder, which Robinson was convicted of committing last summer.

The juror detailed some of his doubts: First, there had been testimony indicating that a key piece of evidence in the murder case had been planted--a probability even the prosecutor acknowledged. And then there was the timing of the events following the robbery. Under the state's theory, Robinson was supposed to have been everywhere at the same time--at one point fleeing a crime scene while simultaneously carrying a pit-bull puppy in a heavy kennel. No way, the juror said. Moriarty listened. Those were the points she'd tried to make in the murder case. Why couldn't the jury have felt the same way then?

Ordinarily, a verdict in one crime doesn't say much about a defendant's other legal entanglements. But the two trials of Dameion Robinson held in Hennepin County District Court in the past eight months were inextricably intertwined: Evidence showed that the two crimes were committed with the same gun. It was the same police informant--a man named Johnny Edwards--who fingered Robinson as the murderer and as one of the robbers. And both cases taken together might yet unravel the most tangled, controversial tale the snitch had ever spun.

It all began during the early evening hours of Sunday, August 24, 1997, when three men reported to police that Edwards and an unknown accomplice had shot and robbed two of them. While his companion did the actual shooting, they said, Edwards brandished a gun. A few hours later, Minneapolis police arrested Edwards after a high-speed chase. They were unable to apprehend two other men who jumped from the car and ran. (Edwards lost one leg after a 1994 drive-by shooting.)

Edwards had been in sticky legal situations before, but had demonstrated an uncanny ability to extricate himself by turning state's evidence. Court records show some 58 charges against Edwards, including many petty and traffic offenses; none of them has ever gone to trial. His most prominent moment as a witness came in 1995 when, after being arrested for another robbery, he ratted on six reputed leaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods whom prosecutors had tried to nail for years ("Get Out of Jail Free," 1/22/97).

Shortly after Edwards was booked into the Hennepin County jail that August night in 1997, he called one of his contacts at the Hennepin County Attorney's office, who asked that a police investigator go talk to Edwards. He was innocent of the robbery, Edwards told the officer, but he knew who'd committed both that crime and a murder the night before: An acquaintance named Dameion Robinson, who he said had confessed as much to him while riding in his car just hours before. Police could check the slugs found at both crime scenes, Edwards added, and they'd find the robbery and the murder had been committed with the same .25-caliber pistol. Robinson was quickly arrested and charged with both crimes; Edwards's case was turned over to Ramsey County, since Hennepin prosecutors figured his history as an informant presented them with a conflict of interest. The prosecutors across the river decided not to file charges.

When Robinson went on trial in June for the murder, assistant county attorney Mike Furnstahl didn't call Edwards as a witness. Appearances by Edwards in other trials had hurt prosecutors' cases when defense attorneys dissected his background. Moriarty tried to call Edwards herself, but the judge turned her down.

Midway through that trial, Judge Denise Reilly ruled that the state had failed to link Robinson to the murder. But rather than dismiss the case, Reilly took an unusual step: She allowed Furnstahl to present so-called Spriegl evidence--testimony that might convince the jury that Robinson was guilty of the robbery, even though he was not on trial for that crime. Such evidence is not usually permitted because it can prejudice a jury, but an exception is sometimes made when the prosecution's case is too weak to stand on its own. Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.  

Meanwhile, Edwards remained a free man and continued to come to the attention of police on a regular basis. Last September he was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession, a felony; a month later he was jailed following a raid on a house police believed was a drug-dealing hub. Again, Hennepin County sent both cases to other prosecutors to avoid a conflict of interest; this time Edwards's files landed in the Washington County Attorney's office, which charged Edwards and three other men with planning the "large-scale distribution" of nearly 63 grams of crack. A hearing in that case is scheduled for February 23; on the same day, Edwards's trial on the cocaine-possession charge is scheduled to begin.

When Robinson headed back to court in January to stand trial for the robbery, Moriarty again sought to call Edwards as a witness. This time the judge agreed to allow the informant's testimony as well as information about his background. Moriarty says staffers at a halfway house where Edwards was staying following court-ordered drug treatment turned back her subpoena twice; by the time sheriff's deputies showed up with a court order on January 26, Edwards was nowhere to be found.

As it happened, police picked up Edwards two days later, but he still wasn't available to testify in Moriarty's case: Unbeknownst to her, the Washington County attorney a week earlier had charged him in the armed robbery for which Robinson was being tried. Now, Edwards could not be forced to take the stand and potentially incriminate himself. (Just how Washington County suddenly decided to resurrect the robbery case is unclear. Richard Hodsdon, the prosecutor handling Edwards's drug charges, says he was asked by his Hennepin County colleagues to take a look at the earlier case.)

In the end, Edwards's absence didn't cripple Robinson's defense. She had two other witnesses who had not appeared in the murder trial, and whose stories seemed to exculpate Robinson: One, Adairan Davis, testified that in the hours following the robbery, four men had asked him to broker a crack deal--Edwards, a juvenile he was later arrested with, and two adults. One of the men, Saint Slaughter, was carrying a .25 with a pink pearl handle, Davis said.

Slaughter had played a pivotal role in Robinson's murder trial: He'd found the victim's body and, after the robbery, told police that he'd seen Robinson brandishing the pink-pearl-handled .25 that police believe was used to commit both the robbery and the murder.

Slaughter's story was also the source of some of the contradictions bothering the juror who later phoned Moriarty. Testimony at the trial had shown that during his first police interview, Slaughter didn't mention seeing a gun at all. During a second statement, he described seeing Robinson with the gun in his kitchen and asking him to put it away because there were kids in the house. Much later he gave a third statement in which he said Robinson had fired the gun in his front yard.

Minneapolis Police Department ballistics experts had testified at both of Robinson's trials that they had searched Slaughter's yard with a metal detector capable of distinguishing the denomination of a coin buried a foot underground. Nothing was found. But hours later Slaughter called police and announced that his cousin had found the shell casing. When the officers returned, he led them to a bare patch in the middle of the lawn where the casing--a match for the spent shell found next to the murder victim's body--lay in plain view. The gun, described as a relatively rare "ladies'" make, was never found.

Moriarty's other witness was Orpheus Hicks, who told the jury that he had been one of the men riding with Edwards in the car the night of the robbery; the other two, he said, were Slaughter and a juvenile. Robinson--who according to Edwards had made his confession during that same car ride--was not there, Hicks said.

Moriarty calls the acquittal "a wonderful thing" for her client, given that "the evidence about the robbery was the reason for his conviction in the murder trial." The attorney handling Robinson's appeal of the murder conviction, Roseville criminal defender Michael Cromett, says he can't yet discuss the matter. But other appeals attorneys question whether the issue of Spriegl evidence--the use of testimony about the robbery to convict Robinson of the murder--could overturn Robinson's conviction.

Under Minnesota law, Robinson's murder conviction doesn't have to be thrown out simply because he was acquitted of a related offense, says Scott Swanson, an attorney in the state public defender's office who has taught seminars on Spriegl evidence. More relevant to an attack on his murder conviction, he says, might be the testimony at the robbery trial putting the pink-handled gun--the weapon supposedly used in both crimes--in someone else's hands. "The overall situation has to smell bad to a judge," he says. "If on a gut level a case feels bad, you're more likely to get some relief."  

Until the appeal is heard, Robinson is scheduled to keep serving his prison sentence at the state correctional facility in Oak Park Heights. But on the day his trial concluded, Moriarty says, Robinson was at least momentarily a happy man: Elsewhere in the rose-colored Hennepin County courthouse, the guy who had snitched on him was getting ready to face a judge. "There is justice after all," Moriarty quotes her client as saying.


News intern Dan Gearino contributed to this story.

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