Minnesota to free man serving life in child’s 2002 death

Robin Mcdowell and Margie Mason
Associated Press
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Minneapolis – The Minnesota Board of Pardons has granted the release of a Black man who was sentenced to life in prison when he was a teenager.

The board granted Myon Burrell’s request to commute his sentence, meaning he will likely be released from prison Tuesday. The board did not pardon Burrell, who was convicted in the 2002 killing of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards.

Burrell’s case made national headlines earlier this year after a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press and American Public Media exposed major flaws in the police probe and prosecution. That raised questions about whether he may have been wrongfully convicted.

In this Feb. 13, 2020, file photo, Myon Burrell sits inside his cell at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn.

Last week, an independent panel of national legal experts recommended his immediate release after reviewing the facts and all of the available evidence.

Burrell went before the Minnesota Board of Pardons with a request for a pardon and commutation. 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.”

More: Amy Klobuchar helped jail teen for life, but case was flawed

A decision was expected later in the day. 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.

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 has always maintained his innocence, and another man has confessed to being the shooter.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was the city’s top prosecutor at the time, 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.

In this Oct. 25, 2019, file photo, Ianna Burrell displays a newspaper clipping that followed the murder trial of her brother, Myon Burrell, at her home in Shakopee, Minn.

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.

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 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.”

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Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report.

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