Amy Klobuchar helped jail teen for life, but case was flawed
Minneapolis – It was a prime-time moment for Amy Klobuchar.
Standing in the glare of television lights at a Democratic presidential debate last fall, she was asked about her years as a top Minnesota prosecutor and allegations she was not committed to racial justice.
“That’s not my record,” she said, staring into the camera.
Yes, she was tough on crime, Klobuchar said, but the African American community was angry about losing kids to gun violence. And she responded.
She told a story that she has cited throughout her political career, including during her 2006 campaign for the U.S. Senate: An 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet while doing homework at her dining room table in 2002. And Klobuchar’s office put Tyesha Edwards’ killer – a black teen – behind bars for life.
But what if Myon Burrell is innocent?
An Associated Press investigation into the 17-year-old case uncovered new evidence and myriad inconsistencies, raising questions about whether he was railroaded by police.
The AP reviewed more than a thousand pages of police records, court transcripts and interrogation tapes, and interviewed dozens of inmates, witnesses, family members, former gang leaders, lawyers and criminal justice experts.
The case relied heavily on a teen rival of Burrell’s who gave conflicting accounts when identifying the shooter, who was largely obscured behind a wall 120 feet away.
With no other eyewitnesses, police turned to multiple jailhouse snitches. Some have since recanted, saying they were coached or coerced. Others were given reduced time, raising questions about their credibility. And the lead homicide detective offered “major dollars” for names, even if it was hearsay.
There was no gun, fingerprints, or DNA. Alibis were never seriously pursued. Key evidence has gone missing or was never obtained, including a convenience store surveillance tape that Burrell and others say would have cleared him.
Burrell, now 33, has maintained his innocence, rejecting all plea deals.
His co-defendants, meanwhile, have admitted their part in Tyesha’s death. Burrell, they say, was not even there.
For years, one of them – Ike Tyson – has insisted he was actually the triggerman. Police and prosecutors refused to believe him, pointing to the contradictory accounts in the early days of the investigation. Now, he swears he was just trying to get the police off his back.
“I already shot an innocent girl,” said Tyson, who is serving a 45-year sentence. “Now an innocent guy – at the time he was a kid – is locked up for something he didn’t do. So, it’s like I’m carrying two burdens.”
Asked for comment on the case, a Klobuchar campaign spokesperson said Burrell was tried and convicted of Tyesha’s murder twice, and the second trial occurred when Klobuchar was no longer the Hennepin County Attorney. If there was new evidence, she said, it should be immediately reviewed by the court.
Questions about the case come at a difficult time, as Klobuchar and other presidential hopefuls, including Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, face scrutiny for their records on racial justice in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Black and brown communities were being decimated by the war on drugs, and the since-discredited “super-predator” theory prevailed, predicting that droves of poor, fatherless young men devoid of moral conscience would wreak havoc in their neighborhoods.
Democrats joined Republicans in supporting harsher policing and tougher sentencing, leading to the highest incarceration rates in the nation’s history.
Some politicians have tried to distance themselves from the period’s perceived excesses. In January, for instance, Klobuchar returned a $1,000 campaign donation from Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted New York’s infamous Central Park Five, four black teens and one Hispanic who were later exonerated in the rape of a white jogger in 1989.
While campaigning to be the top prosecutor in Minnesota’s most populous county in 1998, Klobuchar advocated for harsher penalties for juvenile offenders.
In Minnesota, allegations of gang affiliation or motive played on the fears of mostly white jurors and led to harsher sentences.
“If you were young and black, and your case was tied to gangs or drugs, it was an especially scary time,” said Mary Moriarty, a public defender in Minnesota’s Hennepin County for nearly three decades. “I do firmly believe that there were people convicted of crimes that they did not do.’
She said that the murder Burrell went down for was problematic from the start.
“In the case of Myon Burrell – where you had a really high-profile shooting of an innocent girl and you put a lot of pressure on the system to get someone to be responsible for that – I think a lot of corners were probably cut.”
In Minneapolis, soaring homicides had briefly earned the city the grim nickname “Murderapolis.” By the time Klobuchar took office in 1999, crime rates had started to drop. But tensions remained high. Tyesha’s death set off an uproar.
Police pulled out all stops, deploying more than 40 officers and gang task force members.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, they all but wrapped up their case against Burrell in four days.
Ike Tyson, 21, and Hans Williams, 23, were easy. Several people saw them roll by in their car minutes before the attack, and a 911 tip from one of their girlfriends helped seal the deal.
Burrell, then 16, was arrested only after a tip from an often-used jailhouse informant. During his lengthy legal process, Burrell hired and fired six attorneys as they failed to cross-examine witnesses, pursue alibis or challenge glaring irregularities in the investigation.
In the end, his sentence stuck: Natural life in prison.
The Minneapolis police declined to comment for this story. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office said it’s confident the correct person was convicted but it’s always open to reviewing new evidence.
Assistant County Attorney Jean Burdorf, the only prosecutor left who was directly involved in the case, insists that Burrell received justice. “I’ll tell you what I’ve told a lot of people over the years. I have a lot of confidence in Minnesota’s justice system,” she said.
“Certainly, he’s been through the court process, and his conviction has remained intact.”
For years, many caught up in Burrell’s case have insisted police got the wrong person. Some say they initially lied to protect themselves or their friends. Others say they told police what they wanted to hear to get deals on their own sentences or to punish a rival.
Even though some have changed their stories more than once, they insist they are now telling the truth because they have nothing to gain.
Burrell’s co-defendants were members of the Tyson Mob and the Vice Lords. They say drugs and guns were a way of life in their rough neighborhood. But the shooting wasn’t gang warfare as police claimed, they insisted – it was personal.
Tyson said he and Williams were driving in south Minneapolis when they spotted a group of guys hanging out. Among them was 17-year-old Timmy Oliver, a member of the rival Gangster Disciples, who had menacingly waved a gun at them weeks earlier.
The pair slowed down, scowled at Oliver, then continued on. They picked up an unidentified acquaintance, got a gun and headed back. Tyson said it was his idea, and the intention was to scare Oliver, not to kill him.
The three parked a block away, with Williams waiting in the driver’s seat for a quick getaway. Tyson and the third man jumped out, cutting through an alley and ducking between houses. Shielded by a wall, Tyson said he could clearly see Oliver standing in the yard across the street with his back turned.
He said he fired off eight rounds, the last few as he was running backward toward the car. It wasn’t until later that evening that he learned one of his bullets killed Tyesha in the house next door.
“There was only one weapon, one set of shells,” said Tyson. “I’m the one that did this. I did this.”
Soon after the shooting, he was telling friends, his attorney, fellow inmates and even a prison guard that Burrell was not at the scene, court records show. But he said his lawyer told him he’d never see the outside of a prison unless he implicated the youth. Eventually he buckled, but only after being promised his plea would not be used against Burrell.
Tyson doesn’t want to name the other man who was with him, saying he doesn’t want to pull in a person who was only peripherally involved.
The getaway driver, Hans Williams, did identify a third man – by his full name and in a photo lineup. Police initially said they didn’t want to “muddy up the case” with an unverified name, later that they didn’t believe him. They made no real effort to follow up. After getting a denial from the suspect in 2005, the chief homicide detective “permanently checked” out their recorded conversation and gave it to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. It has since gone missing.
The gun was never recovered and officers said prints on the magazine and the car were not sufficient for identification. Ballistic tests on Tyson’s jacket were not carried out to verify claims that he was the triggerman.
The killing of Tyesha Edwards topped television news that night.
That’s how a prison inmate first heard about it. Desperate to get money or time cut off his own sentence, he quickly reached out to Oliver, a friend and fellow gang member. Minutes later, the often-used informant gave the cops Burrell’s name, helping steer their investigation, the AP found.
Oliver, who had his own troubles with the law, didn’t go to police that day, as he promised. He said one of the bullets had pierced his pants, so he threw them away and went to buy a new pair.
But three days later, he was picked up by officers following another, unrelated shooting. Police now had their sole eyewitness in custody, interviewing him for more than eight hours. Though mandated by law, the interrogation was never recorded. Police later said they “made a mistake.”
Well after midnight, Oliver signed a statement saying he saw Burrell standing across the street in an open lot between two houses, shooting until he emptied his weapon. Later, Oliver’s story would change. He said his diminutive, 5-foot-3 rival was firing from behind a 5-foot wall, 120 feet away, but that his hooded face was still clearly recognizable.
Oliver’s best friend, Antoine Williams, said when the gunfire stopped, he ran to his side.
“I asked Timmy at the time, ‘Who, who did the shooting?’” Antoine Williams recalled in a recorded interview with a private investigator hired by one of Burrell’s attorneys. “He said, ‘I couldn’t see where it was coming from.’”
He later asked Oliver – who died in a shooting in 2003 – why he lied to police.
Oliver told him, “They threatened him, kinda put it like, ‘It was your fault because you were there. You were the intended target,’” Antoine Williams said.
With a new trial date approaching and their key witness, Oliver, gone to the grave, the police turned to informants in the jails and prisons. Some were offered generous sentence reductions, cash and other deals for those willing to come forward with a story about what happened in the shooting, even if it wasn’t true, inmates said.
There were at least seven jailhouse informants, two of whom had coughed up information in more than a dozen other cases. Another went by 29 different aliases.
Terry Arrington, a member of a rival gang, was among those who talked.
He said he was approached by four officers and the prosecutor at a federal correctional facility where he faced 19 years in prison and was told he could knock that down to three if he was willing to cooperate.
He said he knew nothing about the case: “They basically brought me through what to say. Before I went before the grand jury, they brought me in a room and said … ‘When you get in, hit on this, hit on this.’ I was still young and I had fresh kids that I was trying to get home to, so I did what they asked.”
He got his deal, but now lives with that burden.
“Like, I don’t wish jail on nobody,” he said, now back in prison at Rush City correctional facility on other charges. “Even though we was enemies … that’s still a man … So it really bothers me right now.”
He says at least three other men who were locked up with him in the same unit also cut deals with police. One other has recanted.
As far as Arrington knows, “everybody told a lie to get time cut.”
Like many young black men in his neighborhood, Burrell’s distrust of police came early. He was 12 when a drug addict drew a switchblade, slashing his sister in the hand and drawing blood. His mom called the police, but they assumed the boy was the assailant, threw him up against a sharp fence before hauling him to the station in cuffs. Only then did they realize they had the wrong person.
Soon after, he was caught selling drugs and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Worried he might end up in jail, like his dad and oldest brother, his mother packed up the family and moved to Bemidji, a small city 3 1 / 2hours away. But the 13-year-old struggled to fit in and found himself coming back to the Twin Cities often.
In 2002, the family traveled to Minneapolis to spend Thanksgiving with his grandmother.
Less than 24 hours later, Tyesha was dead and police were desperate to find her killer.
They decided early on it was Burrell, though he had not had any serious brushes with the law.
In a video taken by police hours before his arrest, chief homicide detective Richard Zimmerman is seen talking to man brought to the station following another shooting. The officer says he is ready to pay “major dollars” for information about Tyesha’s murder – even if it’s just street chatter.
“Hearsay is still worth something to me,” Zimmerman tells the man, offering $500 a name. “Sometimes … you get hearsay here, hearsay there. Sometimes it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, things come together, you know what I mean?”
The man gave up three names, but Zimmerman paid for just one: Burrell’s.
The afternoon of the shooting, Burrell said, he was playing video games with a group at his friend’s house. Hungry, they decided to walk to Portland Market on 38th Street. When they didn’t see anything they liked, they continued on to Cup Foods, just a few hundred yards from Tyesha’s house.
During his nearly three-hour interrogation, Burrell identified two people he saw at Cup Foods – Latosha Evans and his friend, Donnell Jones.
Police never followed up. But Evans and Jones told the AP they were with Burrell at Cup Foods, either as shots were fired or immediately after, when sirens were blaring.
Though the store itself was under police surveillance because of allegations of drug dealing and weapons sales, it appears officers never recovered video surveillance tapes.
Evans remembers worrying that Burrell would get caught up in a police sweep and told him he better leave.
“I’d hate to you get blamed for this,’” she remembers telling him. “I hugged him and he went his way.”
Burrell was picked up four days later. He was not in a gang database, and had never been tied to a serious crime.
During the interrogation, he never asked for an attorney, but he did ask for his mother 13 times. Each time he was told, “no, not now,” though she was in a room next door.
A police officer told him that he was a huge disappointment to his mother, and that she had told officers she thought he was capable of the shooting.
“Are you kidding?” Burrell responded. “That’s a lie. … That’s not truthful. … I don’t believe that.”
Meanwhile, officers told his mother, falsely, that they had several eyewitnesses saying Burrell was the one and only shooter. Sinking into tears, she asked again and again to see him. “Not yet,” they said.
One month later, the day before Burrell’s indictment, his mother was driving back to Bemidji after a prison visit. She swerved off the road, crashing into a tree. The car burst into flames, killing her.
Klobuchar denied Burrell’s request to go to his mother’s funeral. He was, she said, a threat to society.
Burrell has spent most of his life in prison. He says he believes authorities knew that he was innocent all along: “They just didn’t feel like my life was worth living.”
If he had told police he was there, but had been an unwilling participant, as officers seemed to want, his nightmare might have been over by now. But he says he wants justice not just for himself, but for Tyesha. He could never admit to a crime he didn’t commit, he says.
“That’s something I struggle with to this day, you know. I coulda been home,” said Burrell. “At least I can look in the mirror and I can still be proud of who I see looking back.”
Associated Press writer Margie Mason contributed to this report.
This story was produced in collaboration with American Public Media.