When 19-year-old Milton Lewis accepted the plea prosecutors offered him in the 1995 killing of Steven Taylor, the sentence seemed fair. Five years in prison seemed like a reasonable sentence for second degree unintentional felony murder--essentially for being an accessory to the drug-deal-gone-bad that ended in Taylor's murder. The problem, from a defendant's perspective, is that he was charged with first-degree murder based on the word of a snitch who turned out to be wrong.
A snitch, it turned out, whose story police and prosecutors never fully corroborated yet planned to take to trial. Worse, a snitch whose statements about other murders had proven wrong. Prosecutors haven't returned City Pages' phone calls about the case, but from where Lewis sits, it would be hard not to conclude that had his attorney not hired his own investigator and done the legwork police and prosecutors should have done 16 months ago, he'd be on trial right now facing a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit.
Lewis's sentencing, scheduled for April 30 in Hennepin County District Court, will end the last of the six high-profile cases that police claim have disabled the Rollin' 30s Bloods, which they describe as the city's most violent gang. Each of the cases has hinged on testimony from Johnny Edwards, a reputed former Bloods member who claims to have witnessed some of the crimes and heard fellow gang members take credit for the others. In jail last year on charges that he held up a motorist, Edwards called the Minneapolis Police Department and fingered several men in cases police had been trying to solve for the better part of a year ("By Any Means Necessary," CP, 1/22/97).
The first three men Edwards testified against were subsequently convicted. Reggie Ferguson, the alleged leader of the Bloods, his brother Alonzo, and Shannon Solomon were each found guilty of murder or attempted murder in three separate cases. Charges against the fourth, murder defendant George Dixon, were dropped earlier this year when police reportedly found the real killer. The fifth, Ferguson half-brother Obuatawan Holt, was acquitted in February of attempted murder by a jury that found Edwards's tale unbelievable ("Bad Company," CP, 2/26/97).
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 secure convictions. The use of informants like Edwards has skyrocketed in recent years, especially in drug and gang cases. Police and prosecutors 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.
Steven Taylor's murder had gone unsolved for 10 months when Johnny Edwards made his deal with the cops. Until then, police worked off statements made by Steven Nyabiosi, who was with Taylor at the time of the murder. According to Nyabiosi, on Feb. 16, 1995, he and Taylor were at Taylor's house at 3308 Pleasant Ave. S., when they decided to go in search of some crack. On the way out of the house to Taylor's pickup truck, they encountered Lewis standing in the front yard of the apartment building next door, and told him they were looking for crack.
Lewis then reportedly went inside the building and re-emerged a few minutes later with another young man, Kiddrick Code. Code went to the driver's window of the truck and sold Taylor some crack. Taylor revealed a large roll of bills, which Code tried to grab. They struggled, and Code reportedly pulled a gun and shot Taylor in the face. Nyabiosi, who knows neither Lewis nor Code, described both teens to police but couldn't name them.
Edwards's tale differed significantly from Nyabiosi's. While negotiating his deal, Edwards told the cops that two or three days after the shooting, Lewis confessed to Edwards and his first cousin, Jowanza Edwards, that he was the killer. According to Johnny Edwards, Lewis told him he found a pager on the street. It was buzzing, so Lewis called the number and talked to a "geeker" who was looking for crack. Lewis supposedly told the caller to come to his house and went outside to wait. In Edwards's version, the men drove up but no drug deal went down. Instead, Lewis walked up to Taylor and shot. After confessing to Edwards, Lewis supposedly threw his gun into the Mississippi.
The first time Edwards told the story, he said Lewis was with some unidentified friends during the shooting. The next day, Edwards changed his narrative, telling police that a man named Anthony Code was standing outside the building when the geekers drove up, and that Code went into the building and came out with Lewis, whom Edwards again named as the shooter.
Police eventually came up with yet another version of events surrounding the shooting: Anthony Code, whose younger brother Kiddrick has now reportedly confessed to being the shooter, also fingered Lewis. Police and prosecutors went with Edwards's story, and never followed up by finding and interviewing Jowanza Edwards, never went back to Nyabiosi to ask if Edwards's account jibed with his memory, and never contacted Laverne Johnson, the man who was supposedly present when Lewis confessed to Code.
It was clear that Lewis had been at the scene--which he admitted--but not at all clear he was the shooter. Lewis's attorney, Joe Margulies, couldn't get Nyabiosi to talk to him. But he did track down Johnson and Jowanza Edwards, both of whom denied being present during any confession, or knowing anything about Taylor's murder or Lewis's role. Plus, Edwards claimed that the "geekers" paged Lewis, talked to him on the phone, and then drove to his apartment. Why would they drive next door to get crack? From Margulies's perspective, the conflicting evidence should have been enough to make the state rethink its prosecution of Lewis on first degree murder charges.
The second problem with the case was that Margulies thought police had other information about the Taylor murder that they weren't pursuing. When Lewis was first arrested, he had briefly been represented by a different lawyer. That lawyer had received a call from an unidentified police officer who said police had information that Lewis wasn't the killer. He had promised not to disclose the source's identity, not even to Margulies. When Lewis's trial began on April 1, Margulies argued that the judge should force the first attorney to reveal his source. The source would prove that the police had information they weren't revealing, he argued.
On the eve of trial, prosecutors offered Lewis a deal. Under the arrangement, Lewis admitted that he was at the scene and that he participated in the drug deal that led to Taylor's murder. Given those facts, he pleaded guilty to the crime of felony murder, which meant he participated in a crime that, albeit inadvertently, led to murder. Lewis told the judge that the shooter was Kiddrick Code, the younger brother of Anthony Code, who had claimed that Lewis confessed to him.
The next day Kiddrick Code was arrested and, according to police reports, confessed immediately. Code's confession paints Lewis as the crack dealer, and says that Lewis gave Code a gun and told him to get the crack back from Taylor after the sale was made. Unlike Nyabiosi, Code describes Lewis as involved in the ensuing tussle. The gun, Code reportedly says, just went off. He didn't even know his fingers were on the trigger. "Kiddrick Code stated that there wasn't a day that went by after the above murder that he wasn't bothered by it," the investigator's report states. "He said that he drank heavily and also used drugs. He said that he had oftentimes contemplated suicide."
But Lewis wasn't the first person to finger Code. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Bill Richardson, who prosecuted Milton Lewis, did not return City Pages' phone calls. But an investigator's report from his office suggests that for at least a month before Lewis went to trial, police and prosecutors had reason to believe that Code participated in the murder. Immediately after the shooting, police canvassed the neighborhood and, in one of the apartments at 3312 Pleasant, questioned Lewis and another young man who identified himself as Tony Valintino Fenster. When officials tried to find Fenster again, they concluded that the name was an alias.
In early March, Richardson's investigator was looking at Code's file--his report doesn't say why--and realized his birthday was one year to the day after the birthday "Fenster" had given police, and that both had the same address and middle name. Plus, Code had used the name Tony Fenster in the past. Earlier, the report adds, Minneapolis Police Department Sgt. Jim Kaju had told the county attorney's office that he had an informant who had attributed the murder to Kiddrick Code. Three weeks later, amidst a trial that could have landed him life in prison, Lewis named Code as Taylor's killer.
What enrages Margulies is that the state went ahead with Lewis's prosecution even though the case was riddled with loose ends--not the least of which is Edwards's track record for fingering the wrong suspect. In the year and a half following his statements about the Bloods cases, Edwards has received at least $3,000 from police (including the return of $1,400 in cash seized from his home during an alleged drug raid) plus other inducements to help the state make its cases.
Other defense attorneys who've gone up against Edwards have speculated that he has a "walk on water" pass from police because of his importance to their cases. Police who stopped him and several other men displaying an unregistered gun fitted with a laser sight last November told City Pages they didn't want to charge the state's "star witness" because it would have made Edwards look bad. Police reports suggest that at least one other incident involving Edwards may have gone quietly away. Lewis's case file indicates that Edwards may have fingered five more supposed gang members in murders that are still under investigation.
In the end, the sentence Lewis received seems to reflect his role in Taylor's murder. Nevertheless, it appears an awful lot like the only thing that halted the state's use of Edwards to construct the badly flawed first-degree murder case against Lewis is the defense's own investigation.
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