By ROBIN McDOWELL and MARGIE MASON Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota’s pardon board decided Tuesday to free a Black man who was sent to prison for life as a teenager in a high-profile murder case that raised questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system that put him away.
Myon Burrell’s case made headlines earlier this year after The Associated Press and American Public Media uncovered new evidence and serious flaws in the police investigation into the 2002 killing of an 11-year-old girl who was hit by a stray bullet while doing homework at her dining room table.
Burrell went before the Minnesota Board of Pardons with a request for a pardon and commutation to time already served. He said the request “is not in any way, shape or form me trying to minimize the tragedy of the loss of” Tysha Edwards. “I come before you, a 34-year-old man who spent more than half of his life incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit.”
The board commuted his sentence to 20 years, with the remainder to be served on supervised release. He was expected to be released from the state’s Stillwater prison Tuesday night. The board did not pardon Burrell.
A unanimous vote is normally required by the governor, attorney general and the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea has recused herself from the decision.
Gov. Tim Walz recommended the commuted sentence, saying science has found and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teenage minds work differently than those of adults, and that a life sentence for a teenager is too extreme.
“While this board is not a fact finder, it does have the power to determine when justice is served through the power of clemency and mercy,” Walz said, adding: “We cannot turn a blind eye to the developments in science and law as we look at this case.”
Last week, an independent panel of national legal experts also recommended Burrell’s immediate release after reviewing the facts and all of the available evidence.
Burrell was 16 when he was sentenced in the killing of Tyesha, a Black sixth grader who was shot through the heart inside her family’s south Minneapolis home. He always maintained his innocence, and another man has confessed to being the shooter.
Burrell’s petition was accompanied by testimony from community leaders and letters from other young men in prison attesting to his strong character and moral leadership behind bars.
“I just tried to be the best human being that I could be in hopes that one day I would be given the opportunity to go home and live life as a productive member of society,” Burrell told the panel in a Zoom video call from inside the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater.
Walz addressed the Edwards family during the hearing, saying: “We’re not here to relitigate the crime committed against your family that took your daughter away. There is nothing I can do to ease your pain, and it will not be made better. But we must act today to recognize the law in this area has changed. Justice is not served by incarcerating a child for his entire lifetime for a horrible mistake committed many years ago.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was the city’s top prosecutor at the time of the killing, has used Burrell’s conviction throughout her political career to tout her record of being tough on crime. She raised it again last year on the stage of the Democratic presidential primary debate.
The AP’s yearlong investigation, however, showed there was no hard evidence — no gun, DNA or fingerprints — tying Burrell to the shooting. Among other things, police did not collect a corner store’s surveillance video, which Burrell said could have cleared him. And video footage showed the lead homicide detective offering a man in police custody $500 for Burrell’s name, even if it was just hearsay.
Burrell’s co-defendants said the teenager was not at the scene that day.
Klobuchar released a statement saying the board made the right decision.
“Along with others, I had asked for the independent investigation of this case, and as I said when the report was first released, the sentence deserved immediate review. That happened today,” she said. She also urged a conviction review unit to continue investigating the facts.
New questions about Burrell’s case surfaced just before Minneapolis was thrust into the national spotlight after a police officer held his knee against George Floyd’s neck outside a convenience store as Floyd gasped for breath. It was the same Cup Foods store that Burrell said could have provided his alibi if surveillance tapes had been pulled.
Floyd’s death sparked racial injustice protests and put renewed focus on some law enforcement practices from the 1990s and early 2000s, when harsher policing and tougher sentencing led to the highest lock-up rates in the nation’s history. Those incarcerations hit Black and brown communities the hardest.
Under public pressure after the AP report, Klobuchar threw her support behind the creation of the independent panel, saying it was just as important to protect the innocent as punish the guilty. In its report, the panel raised concerns about the police investigation that mirrored many of those uncovered by the AP.
The panel’s report said officers suffered from “tunnel vision” while pursuing Burrell as a suspect, homing in on evidence that supported their theory of guilt and ignoring that which may have helped him. Officers relied heavily on a single eyewitness, who offered conflicting accounts, along with jailhouse informants, who benefited generously for testifying.
Two of the informants have since recanted. One had his 16-year prison sentence cut down to three. Another said he was cooperating with police in 14 other cases.
The panel said it saw no purpose served by keeping Burrell locked up. It pointed to his age at the time of the crime, said he had no prior record and that he behaved well behind bars. It also cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years that argued against overly harsh sentences for juveniles because their brains and decision-making skills are not fully developed.
“In considering the sentence, we became profoundly aware of how our nation has changed in the way we consider juveniles who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system,” Mark Osler, who chaired the panel, wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this past weekend.
Burrell was jailed during an era “marked by racially charged fearmongering about young ‘super-predators’ who would be violent for the entirety of their lives,” Osler wrote.
In the panel’s report, members of Tyesha Edwards’ family said Burrell’s continued imprisonment was a sensitive topic.
The girl’s biological father, Jimmie Edwards, said before the hearing that he opposed any release and that the process of having the case reexamined has been taxing. He said Tyesha had been doing well in school and was well-liked by classmates and teachers.
Burrell “just wants a free ticket out of prison,” Edwards told AP. “But he took something from us that can never be replaced.” He declined to comment after Tuesday’s decision.
Associated Press writers Amy Forliti and Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.
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