He's Sorry

Dantwon Charles

Each time the man on the stand opened his mouth, the people in the packed-to-capacity gallery shifted forward in their seats, straining to hear his answer. But each time, all the witness said was, "I plead the Fifth Amendment." Forty-six times Johnny Earl Edwards, the infamous star witness in a series of high-profile Minneapolis gang prosecutions, declined to answer questions about the truth of his past testimony.

Edwards was in court again two weeks ago in relation to Alonzo Ferguson's motion for a new trial. Ferguson, now 26, was convicted in 1996 of murdering a Chicago man, and Edwards's testimony had been the linchpin in the state's case. Six years later Ferguson's attorney, Joe Margulies, believed he finally had solid evidence that Edwards had framed his client.

After Edwards was excused, his father, John Turnipseed, entered the witness box and told the lengthy story of what he claimed was Edwards's change of heart. In April of 2000, Turnipseed testified, he visited his son in prison. During the visit, he said, Edwards admitted he had lied when he fingered Ferguson for the murder of Allen Wheatley Jr. It was a revenge thing: Edwards had lost a leg as the result of a 1993 gang shooting, and he was angry with the cousins he'd grown up with--especially Reggie Ferguson and his brother Alonzo--for not striking back at the men who'd shot him.

"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 explained. "When Little Johnny's leg got shot off...he was looking for his family to right this wrong 'cause the guys who shot him were still out on the street. He felt that Reggie and James [Ferguson] and the cousins should have retaliated and they didn't."

But despite it all, Edwards likes Alonzo Ferguson, Turnipseed continued, and in the years since Ferguson's conviction Edwards has felt bad about his testimony. "Here's a man who's serving a life sentence because of a lie," he said, "and my son feels remorse."

Edwards had not come forward before his conversation with his father because "he was afraid to make the police look foolish," according to Turnipseed's testimony. "He was scared of what the police and prosecutors would say," the father elaborated. "What he's worried about is, there's a felony charge that goes with recanting."

Turnipseed's performance on the stand was the kind of spectacle that causes nightmares for any prosecutor who has ever relied on a jailhouse snitch to make a case. In recent years, the number of wrongful convictions nationwide based at least in part on the testimony of jailhouse informants has mushroomed. Last year, after it was discovered that such evidence had been used in the erroneous conviction of five men on death row, Illinois moved toward placing strict limits on the practice. Earlier, the same reliance on informants forced prosecutors in Los Angeles to revisit 130 old criminal convictions.

Edwards's case log is modest by comparison. Since he first began resolving his own legal problems by fingering other alleged criminals in 1995, his statements have resulted in the filing of charges in eight cases, six of them high-profile gang prosecutions. But Edwards's testimony has secured just four convictions, one of which was later overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

"Johnny's testimony shows in general the danger of relying on jailhouse informants," says Margulies. "The pressure on people in custody to cooperate with the state is enormous. What this case demonstrates is the peril of using this kind of witness." If prosecutors were eager to get to the bottom of things, he adds, they would grant Edwards immunity from prosecution on perjury charges and invite him to set the record straight once and for all.

¬ On September 24, 1994, 21-year-old Allen Wheatley Jr. arrived in Minneapolis from Chicago with his father and cousin to visit relatives. At some point in the evening, the visitors and their hosts took a walk. They ran into Ferguson, who was a friend of Allen Wheatley's cousin Prentice Wheatley. Ferguson told Allen Wheatley that he might want to take off his blue shirt because he was walking around in territory claimed by the Rolling 30s Bloods, an outfit that did not like to see blue on its turf. Wheatley retorted that he'd wear whatever he wanted. Ferguson left.

Wheatley's relatives thought Ferguson simply had been offering friendly advice, and back at their house they got into a heated argument. Wheatley was crossing the dining room when seven shots were fired through the window. One shot struck him, and he died a few hours later.

The window blinds were tightly closed, so no one saw the shooter. The gun used in the killing was never recovered, and witnesses' statements conflicted. One of Wheatley's cousins first claimed to have seen Ferguson lurking outside the house before the shooting but changed his story at trial. Others said they had seen someone, too, but thought it was a cousin with whom Wheatley had argued. The case went uncharged for nearly two years until what Margulies has called "the fortuitous appearance of Johnny Edwards."  

In late 1995, Edwards found himself in jail, charged with a holdup and with possession of marijuana. Unable to make bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about crimes committed by the Fergusons and some of their reputed gang associates. The cases were political hotcakes: A few months before, a wave of gang-related violence had prompted the New York Times to label the city "Murderapolis," and nailing the Bloods had become a top priority.

It wasn't proving easy, however. Before Edwards came forward, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office had tried and failed to prosecute three of the Bloods' reputed leaders, most famously Reggie Ferguson. But Edwards's jailhouse call led to the arrest of six alleged Bloods leaders. Then-County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign.

Edwards told police that before Wheatley was killed, Edwards had heard Alonzo Ferguson threaten to "go over there and pop kill that nigger," and that Ferguson had later confessed to him. Despite inconsistencies in Edwards's statements, Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Two other men Edwards fingered were quickly convicted of other offenses. One was Reggie Ferguson, who was finally found guilty of attempted murder. (He has since been released, having served his sentence, and was in the courtroom when Edwards and his father testified.)

The convictions were secured, however, before anything was known about the state's star witness. It's standard practice for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, so each side can investigate the other's witnesses. But prosecutors had argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, and thus they were allowed to cloak his identity until the eve of trial in each of the first three cases. So when he took the stand, defense attorneys were ill-prepared to challenge his credibility.

When the Fergusons' half-brother, Obuatawan Holt, went on trial, the judge ruled that the "veil of secrecy" was no longer justified. Prosecutors were ordered to open their files on Edwards. Holt's attorney quickly found witnesses to rebut everything the informant said, and the jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Holt (see "Bad Company," February 26, 1997).

Charges against a fourth man Edwards had fingered, George Dixon, were dropped when, courthouse sources say, police found out that the killer wasn't Dixon, as Edwards had claimed. Within weeks, a fifth case had fallen apart: Edwards had alleged that a man named Milton Lewis had confessed a drug-related murder to him. But on the eve of Lewis's trial, another man confessed to the crime (see "State's Evidence," April 23, 1997).

The sixth man--actually the first of the Bloods to go to trial--was Solomon Shannon. Edwards claimed that he'd heard Shannon bragging about a murder. There was another witness, but she had proven unreliable, making the informant's testimony crucial. Two years after Shannon's conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that a mistake had been made--unrelated to Edwards's performance--and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors said they were reluctant to subject the other witness to another trial, and without her corroborating Edwards's testimony, they conceded that they probably wouldn't win. Shannon pleaded guilty to the less serious crime of manslaughter and to an unrelated robbery in exchange for a sentence of time served. (He admitted he was present at the time of the shooting, but he said he wasn't the trigger man.)

¬ 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 never took the stand in the case that was his undoing. On the evening of August 24, 1997, three men reported to police that Edwards and an unknown accomplice had robbed them. Edwards, they said, brandished a gun while his companion shot two of them. Hours later, Minneapolis police arrested Edwards after a high-speed chase. They were unable to apprehend two other men, who had jumped from the car and run.

After Edwards was booked into jail that night, he called one of his contacts at the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, who sent over a police investigator. Edwards told the officer that he was innocent, but that during the chase an acquaintance named Dameion Robinson had confessed to both the robbery and a murder the night before. Police could check the slugs found at both crime scenes, Edwards added, and they'd find they all came from the same .25-caliber pistol. Robinson was charged with both crimes. Edwards's history as an informant presented Hennepin prosecutors with a conflict of interest, so his case was turned over to Ramsey County, which decided not to file charges.  

Robinson was tried first for the murder, an alleged drug deal gone bad. No direct physical evidence linked Robinson to the killing of Derangle "Dino" Riley. Instead, it was testimony about the robbery the next day that made the state's case. Since slugs recovered from that crime scene matched the bullets used to kill Riley, no information about Edwards's dubious background was presented at trial. Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Several months later, however, Robinson was tried and acquitted of the robbery and shooting. In the intervening months his attorney had managed to locate two additional witnesses. Both of them testified to having seen another man with Edwards that night. Robinson's second trial ended in an acquittal, which his attorney, Mary Moriarty, proclaimed "a wonderful thing," but which didn't provide any legal leverage for reopening her client's murder case.

Edwards himself never took the stand in that trial, either. In the preceding weeks he had been arrested on drug charges, which Washington County was prosecuting quite vigorously. Hennepin County staffers referred evidence about the botched gun deal to their counterparts in Washington County, too. Edwards ended up pleading guilty in 1999 and was sentenced to some seven years in prison. Even though the facts he'd confessed to differed significantly from the story he'd told about Robinson, Edwards never provided a new account of just who was brandishing the .25.

¬ And there matters might have lain if it hadn't been for John Turnipseed's need to atone for his past. At 48, Turnipseed has both a history of nonviolent felony convictions and a respected place in the community as the head of the Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures, a south Minneapolis faith-based social service agency. An outgrowth of a religious conversion he testified he experienced several years ago, his job is to help men like him foster meaningful relationships with their children.

"My son, I taught him to be a criminal," he testified two weeks ago. "But my life changed. I changed. I changed when I saw Johnny's leg get shot off. And I believe something happened to my son in prison and he changed."

After Edwards went to prison, Turnipseed began making monthly trips to Hutchinson, Kansas, where his son was being held--far away from the men he had informed on. For a long time, he says, he just talked to Edwards about Jesus, and his desire to be a real father to Edwards. Eventually, he says his son told him that he had joined a prison group with religious overtones, the Moorish Americans: "I heard him talk about a relationship with God, and then I heard he had lied [in his testimony], and so that got me started thinking about talking to him." So Turnipseed asked Edwards point blank if he had told the truth. He says his son then admitted his lies but claimed he was scared to recant.

Turnipseed contacted Margulies, who was in the process of trying to get Alonzo Ferguson's case reopened on the grounds that police and prosecutors had failed to disclose the extent of their financial assistance to Edwards during Ferguson's trial. (During trials held after Ferguson's, evidence was introduced showing that officials paid for all kinds of things for Edwards: hotels, cabs, meals, car repairs, and bar bills. He was given spending money, and police helped him to get back $1,400 seized during a drug bust at his house in 1995.) Margulies put that petition on hold and attempted to contact Edwards.

But Turnipseed had also hired his son a lawyer, who feared that Edwards's testimony would expose him to charges of perjury, a felony. Arguing that Turnipseed should then be allowed to testify, Margulies asked for a new trial. Judge Bush denied the petition; Margulies appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The justices agreed with his argument that an exception to the rules prohibiting hearsay should be made; Edwards's Fifth Amendment rights, they concluded, rendered him unavailable and therefore his father could testify.

At the hearing two weeks ago, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Bill Richardson suggested that Edwards was angry with the state for putting him in prison despite his help on the Bloods cases. And with Edwards's release date growing near and his cousin still facing a life sentence, he noted, both Edwards and Turnipseed had strong reasons for recanting falsely.  

Margulies argued that the state could easily cut to the chase by giving Edwards, who appears to have slid out from under numerous criminal cases by virtue of his cooperation as an informant, immunity from prosecution for perjury. Surely, Richardson countered, Edwards's attorney had advised him that the penalties for perjury were "pretty minimal."

Bush won't rule on the credibility of John Turnipseed's testimony and Alonzo Ferguson's subsequent petition for a new trial until sometime next year. Whatever he decides will almost certainly be appealed to the state supreme court, which would have to side with Ferguson again before a new trial could be ordered. Most likely, that means Edwards will have finished his sentence and been released by the time Ferguson learns anything definitive.

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