Get Out of Jail Free

It's not the kind of thing cops see every day, but when Officer Jeff Werner and his partner spotted a slender red beam of light early on the morning of November 14, they knew exactly what they were looking at: the projection from a laser scope mounted atop a gun.

The police traced the beam to four men clustered around a white Chevy Cavalier parked near the intersection of 36th Street and Fifth Avenue South in Minneapolis. As they watched, the men--one of whom had only one leg--reportedly bent over the engine and taped the gun under the hood.

The cops questioned the men and searched their car. They found two more handguns in the car and ammunition in the men's pockets. The officers arrested the four. When they loaded the men into squad cars, the one-legged man protested that the police had made a mistake. They didn't know who they had. He was the "star witness" in some big trials underway downtown.

As it turned out, he was right. Johnny Edwards is a star witness, one so vital to police and prosecutors that local defense attorneys say he has a virtual "walk on water" pass. Edwards is the linchpin in the county's cases against six men who, according to police, are the ringleaders of Minneapolis's most violent gang.

Edwards, 23, entered the picture in January 1996, when he called the police from jail looking for a deal. He said he had information about some high-profile cases. In exchange, he wanted help getting out from under the robbery charge he was facing.

By the time Edwards was arrested in the laser-sight incident, three of the cases had gone to trial, with Edwards taking the stand each time. In each case, he said he knew the defendants because he used to belong to their gang, the Rolling 30s Bloods. His testimony was helping to win cases.

Citing its conflict of interest, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office turned the November weapons cases over to its Ramsey County counterpart, which decided not to prosecute Edwards and turned the remaining three cases over to the city of Minneapolis.

City Pages was unable to locate Edwards, who has moved at least twice since coming forward. Prosecutors won't comment on his status as an informant, but Werner remembers the arrest. "We didn't want to charge him," he confirms, "because it would have made him look like a bad witness."

The use of informants like Edwards has skyrocketed in recent years. Typically they are compensated with cash, or reductions in their own criminal charges, or both. According to one study that sampled records from cities across the country, payments to snitches tripled from 1980 to 1993, as did the number of search warrants issued based solely on the tips of informants whose identity was not revealed even to the judges issuing the warrants. The use of snitches has become especially prevalent in drug and gang cases, partly because mandatory sentencing means that the prison terms snitches would otherwise face are getting longer, and partly because of other witnesses' fears of retribution.

The potential for abuse is obvious. People of less than sterling character are given every incentive to embellish or even fabricate stories about others in order to save themselves. And owing to the rules of discovery in criminal cases, defense attorneys often lack the time and information to prepare a defense. Police and prosecutors naturally maintain that informants are a necessary evil. Defense lawyers and civil libertarians counter that an increasing number of criminals are learning how easy it is to get out of jail free.

The matter of Johnny Edwards combines all of the worst elements of an informant situation: A snitch with a mile-long rap sheet offers up information about cases in which officials are under pressure to produce a conviction. Edwards knew police were trying to nail two of the men he fingered. A couple of months earlier, the state failed to secure a conviction against Reggie Ferguson, the alleged leader of the Rolling 30s Bloods, and was forced to drop its charges against Ferguson's half-brother, Obuatawan Holt.

Ferguson and Holt had been charged with attempted murder. The incident took place in the late evening of February 6, 1995. Just before midnight, police were called to the northside house where Alizia Black and her two children were staying with her sister, Kim Black, and Kim's boyfriend, Ken Phillips.

Phillips and Alizia Black had been bickering for several days over who controlled the phone and who should pay which bills. That evening, the argument erupted into a fight. Police were called but no one was arrested. A little later, Alizia Black allegedly called her former boyfriend, Reggie Ferguson, to come get her and their kids and take them to his mother's house.  

Soon, according to police, Ferguson--along with Holt and four other men--pulled up in front of Black's house in two cars. They went into the house and began beating Phillips. The six men then dragged Phillips outside, where they continued to beat him until Holt finally shot Phillips in the head, police reports claim. The bullet traveled between Phillips's scalp and skull, knocking out several teeth.

Neighbors called the police. Phillips and Kim Black both said Ferguson was at the house, but Phillips said he didn't see who shot him. Kim Black identified 20-year-old Holt as one of the group, but didn't see the shooting. No gun was ever recovered.

During Ferguson's subsequent trial, witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the shooting. Ferguson claimed that he and Alizia Black were in the basement when the shots were fired. He and Black both denied that Holt was there that night. Since the incident was a domestic dispute and not gang-related, no testimony was allowed about Ferguson's alleged role as the leader of the Bloods. The trial ended in a hung jury.

In August, the charges against Holt were dropped, partly because a police gang investigator told prosecutors that another alleged Bloods member looked a lot like Holt and partly because numerous people said they were with Holt in Chicago at the time of the shooting. Police and prosecutors had lost round one in their crusade to incapacitate the Rolling 30s Bloods.

Four months after the charges against Holt were dismissed, Johnny Edwards and a much younger cousin were charged with using a sawed-off shotgun to rob a woman of $480 while she sat in her car. The judge set Edwards's bail at $40,000. Twice Edwards tried and failed to get his bail reduced. Finally, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about a big case.

Not only was he a member of the same gang as Ferguson and Holt; the three were cousins, according to his statement to police. He had driven Holt to meet Ferguson at Phillips's house on the night of the shooting and, although he said he stayed in his car, had seen much of what happened. He likewise claimed to have information implicating another of Reggie's brothers, Alonzo, in a 1994 killing. And he could finger four other men in unrelated crimes.

At the time, police were still trying to nail the Ferguson brothers and Holt. They had the family's Central neighborhood home under surveillance--at one point going so far as to set up shop in a church that overlooked the backyard. They weren't finding anything, however, a difficulty they attributed to the Fergusons' laying low in the wake of Reggie's trial.

Edwards's timing couldn't have been better. In exchange for his testimony, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office agreed to eliminate his bail and to take his cooperation into account when his felony robbery case went to court. Prosecutors started paying Edwards even before he had signed any agreements with them. Both they and the police wanted to move Edwards and his family to another state, but Edwards reportedly refused. He also turned down a deal that would have required him to plead guilty to simple robbery in exchange for a sentence that didn't include jail time. Beyond his deal with prosecutors, Edwards reportedly had other reasons to resent the Fergusons. He was said to be angry that after his leg was shot off in 1993, the Bloods--including Ferguson and Holt--didn't avenge the incident.

There were several things wrong with Edwards's story. During Ferguson's first trial, none of the several eyewitness versions of events on the night of the shooting included mention of a one-legged man. And Phillips and Kim Black both insisted that everyone who arrived at the house got out of their cars. What's more, Black's description of the cars that brought the gangsters to the scene conflicted with Edwards's claims.

Edwards's statements about the case had problems with internal consistency, too. In the first, made to police on the day he called looking for a deal, Edwards named six men he said were at the Phillips shooting. But when he took the stand in Ferguson's second trial--which resulted in a conviction--Edwards said another Ferguson brother, Alonzo, was there as well. Recently, Edwards apparently proved unreliable in one of the other cases in which he had volunteered information: Murder charges against a man named George Dixon were dropped, reportedly because the real killer was found.

But by that time, police and prosecutors could not very well back away from Edwards. After he'd made his deal to testify, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had held a press conference trumpeting arrests that would, they said, disable the Rolling 30s Bloods and ease tensions in the Central neighborhood. Police said their break in the four homicides and other crimes were citizens who volunteered information. "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail, but there are very few people willing to stick their necks out," one of the investigating officers remarked.  

Edwards had become a VIP of sorts. Which might explain why last April, when his wife called police from a neighbor's house and complained that Edwards had held a knife to her face and threatened her, nothing was done.

Prosecutors plan to call Edwards in the Holt trial scheduled to start this Monday, January 27, in Hennepin County District Court. Holt's attorney, public defender Sandra Babcock, fears that Edwards will testify that he and Holt were fellow Bloods.

Even though the shooting isn't gang-related, Edwards's presence will probably give prosecutors a pretext for raising Holt's gang history in court; that was how they knew each other. The gang material could turn the case by itself: In November, the Star Tribune quoted police as crediting the difference between Ferguson's first and second trials in part to prosecutors' ability to introduce gang testimony the second time around. Says Keith Ellison, director of the local Legal Rights Center, "It's like 'communist' in the '50s.... They know it's prejudicial. They want to get it in front of a jury."

Although police investigators have testified in each of the so-called Rolling 30s Bloods cases about the defendants' gang affiliations, they have consistently refused to open up the files to defense attorneys. One cornerstone of our legal system is the right of the accused to examine the evidence against him; where gang files are concerned, however, that does not apply.

"Edwards is in tight with these guys and thus is in a position to know. Okay, fine. So give me his gang file," says defense attorney Joe Margulies, who expects to face Edwards in March when his own client, Milton Lewis, goes on trial for murder. "Every gang file is always part of an ongoing investigation. Even if there's no pending criminal investigation, it's exempt from disclosure. Your status as a gang member is the ongoing investigation."

This catch-22 allows police to say pretty much what they want without fear of immediate contradiction. During Reggie Ferguson's recent trial, for instance, police insisted that Ferguson was the undisputed leader of the Bloods. Ferguson acknowledged being a Blood at one time, but insisted he had straightened out. Only later, under cross-examination, did police admit that the last observation of questionable activities by Ferguson noted in their files was dated 1990.

The gang files aren't the only instance in these cases in which attorneys are having a hard time learning what authorities know about their clients and how. In each of the six trials where Edwards is expected to testify, the county announced that it planned to call an informant, but didn't name the witness or turn over the kind of information to which defendants are usually entitled. The court order sealing the witness's identity is called a prosecutor's certificate. It's used in cases where witnesses need special protection, and prosecutors argued that the informant, Edwards, was vulnerable to retaliation from gang members angered by his testimony.

Normally, weeks or months before criminal cases go to trial, each side gives the other a list of witnesses it may call. Attorneys subpoena information about the people listed so they can prepare to rebut testimony or question their credibility. But in Ferguson's trial and the two others that have been completed to date, prosecutors turned over information about Edwards right before trial--weeks after it's typically divulged. (Edwards previously testified in the cases of Alonzo Ferguson and of Solomon Shannon, both of whom were convicted of different homicides.)

The county tried to maintain the same aura of secrecy surrounding Edwards in Holt's case, too. But Babcock argued that since Edwards had already testified several times in open court and his name had appeared in local newspapers, the protective order should be lifted. She won, but by the time she gets the information, she'll have just days to prepare to face the most important witness against Holt.

In talking with police, Edwards miraculously possessed information about everything the police mentioned. According to a transcript of his statement, they asked if Ferguson was a pimp. Yes, Edwards said, and Alizia Black was one of his hookers. Police asked about Ferguson's mother, Helen. She sells crack, Edwards replied. They asked about Minneapolis City Council member Brian Herron. Edwards claimed that Herron smokes crack.

It wouldn't have been hard for Edwards to learn about animosity between Herron and the police gang unit. The tension had been brewing for a year, ever since gang squad members took reporters to an apartment building at 36th and Clinton to see graffiti that police called a sign of impending gang turf war. Mike Martin, an investigator with the gang unit, said the graffiti meant that the Bloods were staking a claim to everything from Lake Street south to 40th Street, from Chicago Avenue west to Interstate 35W.  

"Tonight's top story: Frightening evidence a gang war may be about to explode in Minneapolis," KSTP began its 10 p.m. newscast that night. It was echoed by a headline the next day in the Star Tribune. The reports angered Herron and other community leaders, who called their own press conference in front of the apartment building the next day. Some of those present said the graffiti was nothing new, and was usually the handiwork of youngster wannabes. Herron said he believed gangs were a real problem, but if police were worried about a turf war, they shouldn't be publicizing any territorial claims.

The police chief at the time, John Laux, later conceded to Herron that cops didn't think a turf war was brewing. Nonetheless, Police Union President Al Berryman wrote a letter chastising Herron for not helping the police. Several months later, Herron told reporters he'd been advised that some cops might be plotting to frame him. One police officer had come to his office, he claimed, and told him to "watch my back." Another had called him at home to warn him.

Weeks later, in August 1995, Herron wrote a letter to Hennepin County District Court Judge Jack Nordby claiming that innocent or guilty, Reggie Ferguson was working to turn his life around. The letter was one of many sent to Nordby by people urging that Ferguson's bail be reduced from $375,000. The bail was lowered to $25,000.

Police once again blasted Herron, an African-American whose 8th Ward encompasses the neighborhood where the Ferguson family lives.

"How can the office of the City Council be used to influence judicial decisions? Is that ethical?" Sgt. Tom Hussman was quoted in the Star Tribune as asking. "I don't think so."

Hussman, ironically, was the officer who interviewed Edwards after Edwards called from jail looking to make a deal. Several months earlier, Hussman had been disciplined by the MPD Internal Affairs Division for insubordination and for mishandling evidence and suspects' possessions. During its investigation of Hussman, IAD heard complaints from his superiors and co-workers that he caused problems in his unit by mistreating witnesses and suspects, by refusing to cooperate with other cops, and by ignoring policies that were designed to ensure the integrity of investigations. He later resigned from the department.

It was Hussman who asked Edwards about Helen Ferguson and Brian Herron.

"I witnessed Helen saying to Brian that you have to get my baby out of this," Edwards answered. "And Brian said, 'You know I'm doing what I gotta do, and I wrote the letter.'"

The practice of using informants is as old as law enforcement itself. But as it becomes more pressing for police and prosecutors to appear to be doing something vigilant and meaningful with regard to gangs, deals like the one given to Edwards are becoming increasingly common. Rarely are the star witnesses model citizens. Police and prosecutors even have a saying about it: Swans don't swim in sewers.

They don't like having to cut deals with crooks or rely on unsavory witnesses, they say, but the fear of retaliation is so palpable in gang cases that witnesses won't testify unless they're protected. They say they scrutinize each tip to make sure it'll stand up in court.

But a recent study published by the National Law Journal found that a drastic increase in the use of informants nationwide threatens "the rights of innocent people, as well as the integrity of the courts." Rules governing who can be an informant and how they can operate are routinely flouted by investigators, the report found.

In 1993, police relied on a single informant as the basis for requesting a search warrant in 71 percent of cases studied by the Journal, versus 24 percent in 1980. In 1980, 46 percent of warrants of all kinds relied on an anonymous informant; in 1993, the figure had risen to 92 percent. In none of the examples examined did the judge authorizing the warrant ask police to produce their source.

And even prosecutors agree that the more frequently informants are used, the greater the potential for abuse. Examples of this abound: In 1992, more than 30 postal workers were arrested for drug trafficking in Ohio based on the word of a snitch who later was found to have fabricated his claims; in the last decade the convictions of at least seven death row inmates in southern and Sun Belt states were reversed because informants had lied, police had pressured them to create stories, and prosecutors had failed to disclose payments to snitches.  

California has recently experienced two prominent examples of abuses perpetrated because of crooked informants. In a 1992 case, officials raided a ranch identified by a snitch as a pot farm. The property owner was killed during the raid, which failed to uncover any illicit drugs. A few years before that, prosecutors in Los Angeles were forced to review more than 200 convictions after a jailhouse informant told a 60 Minutes camera crew that it's easy for criminals to fabricate credible tales by calling prosecutors on the phone from jail and posing as a police officer to get unpublicized details about an investigation. Closer to home, the U.S. Attorney's office got bad publicity across the country for relying on a dubious informant in the 1995 Qubilah Shabazz case.

Yet even as the inherent corruption in using paid confidential informants becomes clearer, state and federal officials are working to make it easier to use them. In recent days, President Clinton hailed the creation of a Justice Department handbook for prosecuting gang members. The president promises the document will help fight gangs by making it easier for authorities to "protect witnesses." The blueprint is an outgrowth of Clinton's pre-election bid for the 1996 Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Control Act, which would have created a national gang tracking network and stiffer penalties for gang-related crimes.

Many prosecutors already rely on such manuals. A Los Angeles County version, for example, advises attorneys to view voir dire, the process during which potential jurors are quizzed about their preconceptions, as an opportunity to sow seeds that help the state's case.

"It is a time to educate a jury about the facts of your gang case. Tell them it's a gang case. Stress the particular gang facts," the manual suggests. "Whatever questions you ask, keep in mind that you are painting a picture of the gang case for the jurors as much as you are trying to find their prejudices." The manual also suggests questioning potential jurors for such "prejudices" as whether they live in the neighborhood where the gang in question operates.

"The gang is a hydra-headed monster that can strike anywhere," the manual goes on to suggest with regard to closing arguments. "Use the gang affiliation as your primary weapon of argument."

Pete Connors, the head of Hennepin County's Adult Prosecution Division, won't comment on Edwards's role in the Bloods cases. But he will say that informants are an important tool for prosecutors looking to secure convictions in gang cases.

Connors, like most prosecutors, says he is well aware of the danger that informants will make their stories fit the state's theory about a crime. "We counter that by saying we've looked into the information they've given us and the information is credible," he says. "Are they giving information you had to be there in order to know?"

Connors says informants are one of several tools Hennepin County increasingly is using to prosecute gang cases. Others include using grand juries to get testimony from people who won't talk to investigators and granting immunity on prosecution for other crimes in exchange for testimony.

The law creating the prosecutor's certificate, which keeps witnesses' names secret until the last minute, has been around for years. The veil of secrecy hasn't made witnesses more likely to come forward, says Connors. "But it makes them more likely to stay with us. It also keeps them from being harassed, threatened, intimidated, and discouraged--and those are huge problems for us."

The county will continue to use informants, he says, but will be careful as it does so. "This office absolutely believes that everyone is entitled to a fair trial," says Connors. "We're not rabid dogs looking to convict people just because they're gang members. First we look at, 'Did they commit a real crime?' And then we prosecute them for that and not for being gang members."

Nonetheless, defense attorneys who've worked on gang cases here say if there's anything the Bloods cases demonstrate, it's that having a client identified as a gang member can be fatal to an otherwise healthy defense.

"It's a deliberate attempt to whip the jury into a furor," says Frederick Goetz, the attorney who defended Reggie and Alonzo Ferguson. "It dehumanizes people, makes them seem like predators. They are entitled to the same rights as anybody else and can be wrongly accused like anyone else."

Indeed, there are plenty of people who say gang affiliation is effectively a crime, one serious enough to land someone on a list of prime police targets. Many say the police were determined to nail the Fergusons, and by extension, Oba Holt.  

And if the police and county weren't targeting the Fergusons, why weren't the three other people Johnny Edwards placed at the scene of Ken Phillips's shooting arrested and prosecuted--or even questioned? Two of the men have long criminal records, in one case including several violent assaults. One also has recently been seen in the company of the man gang squad investigators previously identified as Holt's near-double.

Prosecutors say they're not sure why the other men Edwards identified as being at the scene of the Phillips shooting were never pursued. Neither is Goetz, though he has an idea: "All I know is that with the exception of Alizia Black, the only people they've ever come after have the last name Ferguson."

In the year that's elapsed since Edwards made his deal with prosecutors, he's had a number of other encounters with police. A month after police found Edwards and his cohorts with the tricked-out handguns, the northside house where he and his wife lived burned down.

Edwards believes someone threw a Molotov cocktail through a window in retaliation for his testimony. The Minneapolis Fire Department turned the case over to the police arson investigation unit, which will confirm only that "there's a lot of speculation" surrounding the fire, but
no suspects.

After Edwards started receiving payments from the County Attorney's Office, he complained to police that he was mugged on the north side by three men he didn't know but could tell were Crips. He said the men stole $1,000. Other police reports show that Edwards's wife has complained to police that during the last year valuable electronics have repeatedly been taken from her house.

In June, she also filed a complaint alleging that he had attacked her with a knife. But there is no indication in police records that he was ever arrested. Meanwhile, several other cases involving Edwards are on hold. Charges that he was dealing marijuana won't be considered until after the Bloods cases are over. The charges stem from a police raid on Edwards's former house in Brooklyn Park that turned up $1,400 in cash and a large quantity of marijuana. When he goes on trial in April, in addition to the holdup that started his career as an informant, Edwards will also face two other theft charges and a dozen charges of driving on a suspended license.

"Why on earth do you believe this guy?" asks defense attorney Joe Margulies. "They've turned a blind eye to whether they should be critical of Johnny Edwards because there's a lot of political pressure to do something about this being 'Murderapolis.'"

City Pages news intern Todd Renschler contributed to this story.

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