More than five years after Tyesha Edwards was shot in the heart by a stray bullet while doing her math homework at the dining room table, Myon Burrell's second trial got underway Monday.
"Today, we hope to begin to bring closure to this case," Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mike Furnstahl said.
Burrell was convicted in 2003 of first-degree murder in the 11-year-old's death, but the state Supreme Court set aside the conviction in 2005, saying a statement he made to police was inadmissible. Burrell has remained in jail in lieu of $1 million bail.
Furnstahl said the case he is bringing forward now is much stronger than the earlier one.
Furnstahl said he intends to give evidence of Burrell's motive, as well as eyewitness testimony that he was at the south Minneapolis crime scene and numerous confessions that he made to fellow inmates.
Edwards' mother, Linda Longino, and her stepfather, Leonard Winborn, sat in the front row with other family members throughout the day.
The randomness of the crime pushed the quiet family into the spotlight. Longino and Winborn met with City Hall leaders after the shooting, and Longino was featured in a campaign ad for former Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar's run for the U.S. Senate.
The retrial was to start a year ago, but it was delayed while the county attorney's office sought to have District Judge Charles Porter removed from the case. The defense had asked for a bench trial, meaning Porter, not a jury, will determine Burrell's fate. Prosecutors had argued that Porter expressed an opinion about the strength of their case and should be removed. The state Supreme Court disagreed.
Defense attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks said that the case was a rush to judgment and that Burrell was arrested and charged in a politically charged environment because of community outrage over Edwards' death. In a bid to solve the killing quickly, police failed to follow other leads, he said.
Ultimately, Furnstahl said the case hinges on one question: whether Burrell was at the scene that day. He argued that Edwards was killed by Burrell, a Rolling 30s Bloods gang member, who was shooting at Timothy Oliver, a member of the rival Gangster Disciples.
The prosecutor laid out examples of Burrell's alleged gang lifestyle, saying he had recently converted to the Rolling 30s Bloods and was trying to earn a name for himself as a "rider." That's someone who rides shotgun in a car and does the shooting, Furnstahl said.
Burrell, in a shirt, tie, dress pants and shoes, shook his head often as Furnstahl spoke, sometimes as the two made eye contact.
Eichhorn-Hicks noted that Oliver was the only person to identify Burrell at the scene, and that he was more than 150 feet away and looking through a railing.
Furthermore, Eichhorn-Hicks said, the supposed driver of the car that day didn't identify Burrell. Hans Williams incriminated himself and his best friend Isaiah Tyson as the shooter, but said Burrell wasn't there.
The prosecution's case hinges on untrustworthy jailhouse snitches, Eichhorn-Hicks said. "It has the appearance that Mr. Burrell was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week confessing he was guilty," he said. "The bottom line is Mr. Burrell was not present when the shooting occurred."
Minneapolis police Sgt. Rick Zimmerman testified for much of the afternoon. Asked whether he felt pressure to solve the case, Zimmerman said, "It was just another murder."
He said he had worked more overtime on this case than any other in his nearly 13 years as a homicide investigator. He also said it wasn't until several days after the shooting that Burrell's name came up. At first, investigators knew only his nickname, "Little Skits."
The main eyewitness, Oliver, was killed in the streets about three years ago, so Zimmerman and Furnstahl together read the transcript of Oliver's testimony in the first trial. Zimmerman read Oliver's answers while Furnstahl read the questions from prosecutors and the defense lawyer.
In that testimony, Oliver said he saw "Little Skits" wearing a black hoodie and aiming an automatic handgun at him.
In cross-examination, Eichhorn-Hicks asked about efforts to contact jailhouse informants and Zimmerman's knowledge of someone named "Tyree." The defense lawyer said police failed to investigate "Tyree."
Zimmerman got testy. "This is a search for justice and truth, not about throwing out names to try muddy up something," the sergeant said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747