Myon Burrell stepped outside of the Stillwater prison a free man Tuesday after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime he says he never committed, rousing dozens of supporters in the frigid evening into cheers and applause.
Cloaked from head-to-toe in a traditional Islamic thobe garment colored all white to signify rebirth, Burrell raised his right fist in the air as he stood on the prison's front steps.
"Myon's free! Myon's free!" the crowd cheered about 6:45 p.m. while drum beats filled the air.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons voted Tuesday afternoon to immediately release Burrell from a life prison sentence in the 2002 fatal shooting of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, who was killed when a stray bullet penetrated her Minneapolis home.
The moment was a sign of hope and justice for many in the Black community who said too many of them have been wrongly imprisoned. It stoked their commitment to fight for others whose cases didn't become a presidential candidate's talking point and subsequently, a media sensation.
"It's a new day in America," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The people will no longer be silent about injustice."
Burrell initially didn't speak publicly, shaking hands instead as supporters swarmed him. But after corrections officers escorted him to a waiting car he turned to the crowd.
"I can't express my gratitude for all my supporters," he said, waving his hand in the air. "We're fighting for justice. There's too much injustice going on."
An SUV whisked him away into the night as celebrants, including his son, continued to cheer in the street.
"This was the best feeling I ever had," said 19-year-old Myon Burrell Jr., who was a year old when his father was arrested. "I've been waiting for that my whole life, since I was one years old. Now that he's out, he ain't never going back!"
It was the culmination of years of fights to clear Burrell's name that stalled until the Associated Press published an investigation earlier this year raising several concerns with the police investigation and his prosecution.
It came exactly a week after an independent panel of national experts released a study calling for Burrell's release from prison. The study echoed the Associated Press' findings and cited authorities' reliance on jailhouse informants and investigators' apparent dismissal of potentially exonerating evidence as cause for his release, among other factors.
After hearing from Burrell, his attorney Perry Moriearty and two supporters for about 35 minutes, Gov. Tim Walz, a member of the Board of Pardons, proposed commuting Burrell's life term to 20 years and requiring him to serve the remainder of the time — two years — on supervised release.
Burrell burst into tears as he watched via teleconference.
"Mr. Burrell, you talked about extracting poison and bringing medicine," Walz said. "It's clear to me that you have the power to make a difference."
Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who also sits on the board, voted to approve the release. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea is the third board member, but recused herself because of prior involvement in the case.
"Thank you, thank you," Burrell said as he held an open palm up to the camera. "I appreciate it."
Burrell, 34, was 16 when rival gang members identified him to police as the person who fired shots at a rival, sending a stray bullet into Edwards' home and killing her as she did homework at the dining room table. He has long maintained his innocence.
Walz noted that the board's commutation was not a determination of guilt or innocence, but was motivated by the "exceptionally long" sentence he received as a minor.
"It shows what this board can do; it can bring justice and mercy," Walz said.
Walz noted that Edwards' father, Jimmie Edwards, did not support the commutation. He could have spoken at Burrell's hearing but was not present.
Ellison said he spoke to Edwards' stepfather, Leonard Winborn.
"I just want to be very clear to the Winborn family that this is a horrible tragedy that happened to their daughter, and that nothing that happened here today diminishes that tragedy, and that we will never forget Tyesha," Ellison said.
Burrell, who served as an Imam in the Stillwater prison, has a re-entry plan that involves living with his wife in north Minneapolis or father in Coon Rapids. He has been offered employment and job training at Al Maa'uun, an Islamic faith community in north Minneapolis.
Burrell's case was heard before the Board of Pardons about 4 p.m. Burrell spoke first, noting "my heart goes out to [Tyesha's] family" before recounting how he used his time in prison to better himself.
Burrell declared his innocence, but said he would not dwell on the matter since the board cannot vacate convictions.
"I started going in and extracting medicine out of the poison," he said. "The trials and tribulations I was going through, I tried to get something out of it."
Burrell told the board he adopted the Islamic faith, earned his GED and became involved in a youth program as a young inmate and later mentored other youth.
He pledged to use what he learned to help others upon his release.
"I'm just asking you guys for the opportunity to go home and contribute to society," he said. "I believe I have a whole lot to offer, and if you give me the opportunity, I'll do so."
The University of Minnesota Child Advocacy & Juvenile Justice Clinic and Moriearty, a law professor at the university, represented Burrell at the commutation hearing. Moriearty argued that Burrell's age at the time, a growing understanding of the difference between juvenile and adult brain development and issues with the police investigation and prosecution, among other factors, were cause to release him.
Walz said his decision to release Burrell was influenced by the science of brain development, the length of the sentence and "serious concerns" raised by the report released last week.
"We can't shackle our children in 2020," Walz said. "We need to grow as our science grows."
Burrell was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years for killing Edwards, and a term of 15 years to serve after that for attempting to kill a gang rival.
The Board of Pardons asked Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to respond to Burrell's request in advance of Tuesday's hearing.
Freeman maintains that Burrell is guilty, but previously offered to dismiss his 15-year term due to a U.S. Supreme Court opinion on the difference between juvenile and adult brains. Under Freeman's proposal, Burrell would have to serve another 12 years before becoming eligible for parole.
"While the Hennepin County Attorney's Office would not oppose a commutation that is consistent with its prior offer, it does oppose Mr. Burrell's request for a sentence commutation to time served and immediate release from prison," Freeman wrote to the board Dec. 11.
Freeman declined to comment Tuesday.
Attorney Daniel Guerrero, who represents Burrell in the criminal case, plans to file paperwork next year to request that a judge dismiss Burrell's convictions.
Burrell's case became a flash point in Sen. Amy Klobuchar's presidential bid; she referenced the case at a debate, leading to the Associated Press investigation.
Burrell was first convicted by jurors in 2003 when Klobuchar was Hennepin County Attorney, and again in 2008 after Freeman took the post.
"This was the right and just decision, and I thank the Pardon Board for their work," Klobuchar said in a written statement Tuesday. "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."