The Minnesota Board of Pardons on Tuesday commuted the life sentence of Myon Burrell, a Black man who was sentenced to life in prison as a minor.
Burrell, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was accused of fatally shooting an 11-year old girl, who was struck by a stray bullet while doing her homework inside her family's Minneapolis home.
Following the announcement of his imminent release, Burrell held back tears.
"Thank you. Thank you very much," he said reaching a hand out to the camera.
Burrell's case drew intense scrutiny after yearlong investigation by The Associated Press and American Public Media published earlier this year, uncovered new evidence and revealed numerous failures in the Minneapolis Police Department's handling of the case, including the absence of fingerprint and DNA evidence, and no murder weapon.
The AP's Robin McDowell reported:
"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 ... And the chief homicide detective was caught on camera offering cash for information — even if it was just hearsay."
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In 2002, Burrell was interrogated by Minneapolis police officers in a grueling session that lasted three hours.
Throughout the grilling, the teenage boy failed to ask for an attorney. Instead, he asked for his mother thirteen separate times.
Repeatedly, he said he wasn't anywhere near the scene of the shooting. He said there was proof. He and a friend had taken a break from playing video games and walked to a convenience store in search of snacks. There was surveillance footage that could prove it, he told the officers.
The AP story showed the police never tracked down the surveillance video.
In the meantime, Burrell was certified as an adult and placed in solitary confinement as detectives questioned alleged witnesses and brought in two other suspects in connection with the shooting — one of whom later swore he was the trigger man.
By the time Burrell turned 17, just a year after the investigation into the killing of Tyesha Edwards began, the Black teen was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Eventually, the 2003 conviction was thrown out — in part due to the fact that the MPD had violated the boy's rights — and Burrell was retried in 2008. But he was again found guilty and this time, sentenced to 45 years to life in prison.
On Tuesday night, after nearly two decades of maintaining his innocence and just 11 months after the blistering story by the AP, Burrell was released from prison.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons commuted the 34-year-old's life sentence to 20 years, saying he could serve out the rest of the time on immediate supervised release.
Prior to the decision, Burrell asked the board, which included Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, for a pardon as well as a commutation.
"This is not in any way, shape or form me trying to minimize the tragedy of the loss of" Tysha Edwards, he said in the Zoom call from inside the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn.
"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," he added calmly.
Walz and Ellison both voted for the commutation but denied Burrell's request for a pardon. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who is the other member of the three-person panel, recused herself from the decision because she had been involved in the case.
"While this board is not a fact finder, it does have the power to determine when justice is served through the power of clemency and mercy," the governor said, noting Burrell's "exceptionally long sentence."
"We cannot turn a blind eye to the developments in science and law as we look at this case," Walz added.
The governor's remarks refer to an independent report specifically examining the circumstances of Burrell's case, as well as a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found teenage minds are not fully developed and therefore they should not be subject to the same type of punishment as adults.
Before voting, Walz spoke about the abysmal state of the juvenile criminal justice system in Minnesota, saying it "needs to be reformed."
"We can't shackle our children in 2020 and expect them to understand and live in a society with respect to decency ... We need to make compassion and redemption part of our criminal justice system," he said.
Walz emphasized that his recommendation, like the independent report, is not a comment on Burrell's guilt or innocence.
The Attorney General noted that the newly released Burrell may be eligible to take the case to his office's new Conviction Review Unit.
The AP's investigative report was published after the story of Tyesha Edward's killing resurfaced in the public sphere as part of the presidential debates. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was Hennepin County Attorney in 2002, has touted the case as a successful example of her tough-on-crime record. In 2007, during her first bid for the U.S. Senate, she claimed credit for helping put away the shooter.
In a statement on Tuesday, Klobuchar thanked the pardon board for their work, saying she "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."
Klobuchar called the vote, "the right decision." She also urged the Minnesota Conviction Review Unit to continue an investigation into "the facts of the case."
Burrell was released shortly before 7 p.m. local time Tuesday night.
As MPR reported, dozens of supporters braved below-freezing temperatures to greet Burrell, who was dressed in white from head to toe, as he took his first steps of freedom.
Some ran bells and beat on a drum while screaming and cheering, "Myon's free!"
Burrell's attorney Perry Moriearty addressed the jubilant crowd saying, "He is very happy to have the opportunity to go home to his family and start the next chapter of his life. He asks that you respect his privacy while he adjusts to life on the outside."
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