After spending more than half of his life behind bars, 34-year-old Myon Burrell became a free man this week. He was sent to prison as a 16-year-old after being convicted of the 2002 fatal shooting of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards — an innocent girl who died when gunfire tore through her Minneapolis home and struck her as she was doing her homework.
Burrell's release underscores the importance of good investigative journalism, critical advocacy work by the Innocence Project and an enlightened pardon board. His case highlights continuing problems of racial bias within the criminal justice system and demonstrates how important it is for law enforcement and the justice system to resist pressure for swift answers to high-profile and often racially charged cases.
The Minneapolis man's release came as a result of years of effort to clear his name that had gone nowhere until the Associated Press published an investigation earlier this year. That story raised serious questions about the Minneapolis police investigation and Burrell's prosecution.
AP reporter Robin McDowell summed up her findings this way:
"With no gun, no DNA, no fingerprints, the case against Burrell revolved around a teen rival who gave conflicting accounts of the shooting. Later, police turned to jailhouse informants, some of whom say they were coached and have since recanted. Alibis were not questioned. Key evidence has gone missing or was never obtained, including a convenience store surveillance tape that Burrell and others say would have cleared him. And the chief homicide detective was caught on camera offering cash for information — even if it was just hearsay."
Then just last week, an independent panel of national experts released a study echoing the AP's findings and calling for Burrell's release from Stillwater prison. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Board of Pardons voted to commute his life sentence and grant his immediate release.
Board members Gov. Tim Walz and state Attorney General Keith Ellison made that recommendation, arguing that in addition to those reports, 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. The commutation, Walz said, was not a determination of guilt or innocence. Rather, it was motivated by the "exceptionally long" sentence Burrell received as a minor. Still, Burrell could at some point seek to clear his name entirely.
Rival gang members had identified Burrell as the gunman after Edwards was killed, but Burrell maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment. Yet he was convicted twice: First, when now-U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was Hennepin County attorney in 2003, and again in 2008 when current county attorney Mike Freeman led the office. Klobuchar had held up the conviction as a point of pride as she was beginning her run for president.
After the AP investigation was published, and after pressure from Burrell's supporters grew stronger, the senator called for a review of any new evidence in the case. Then shortly after she left the race, Klobuchar wrote to Freeman requesting an independent investigation. She called the decision to release Burrell "just and right" this week.
Justice was a theme Burrell's supporters emphasized after he left Stillwater prison on Tuesday. Many of them saw his release as a sign of hope for the many Black people and others of color who they believe have been wrongly imprisoned. His release will rightly fuel their efforts to continue to fight for racial justice.
Those efforts must continue — and be successful — to make this nation's justice system work fairly and equally for all.