MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Black man who was sent to prison for life as a teenager took his first steps of freedom to the sound of ringing bells and cheering family members and supporters, hours after a pardons board commuted his sentence in a high-profile murder case.
Myon Burrell's prosecution and harsh punishment raised questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system that put him away nearly two decades ago for the death of a young girl killed by a stray bullet. Earlier this year, The Associated Press and APM Reports uncovered new evidence and serious flaws in the police investigation, ultimately leading to the creation of an independent national legal panel to review the case.
Last week, the panel published its findings, saying there was a "failure to investigate that illustrates tunnel vision" and that evidence that could have helped exonerate Burrell was either ignored or minimized.
The panel said it saw no purpose served by keeping Burrell locked up, pointing to his age at the time of the crime and his good behavior behind bars.
Burrell's request for a pardon was denied and he will have to spend the next two years under supervised release. But it was the first time in at least 22 years that Minnesota commuted a sentence in a murder case, according the the Department of Corrections.
The release was swift. Just hours after receiving the news, he walked out the front door of Stillwater prison into below-freezing temperatures. Dozens of bundled supporters, some holding signs and balloons, surrounded Burrell while cheering "Myon's free! Myon's free!"
After jumping into a waiting car, he was soon home. Friends and relatives filtered into the living room, greeting him with gifts and hugs.
"It's just a blessing," he said, while standing outside on the street searching the sky for the moon and stars, which he said he's been longing to see.
Burrell has always maintained his innocence in the 2002 killing of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, struck in the heart while doing homework at the dining room table with her little sister. He told Minnesota's Board of Pardons members Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison that his "heart goes out" to her family. The third board member, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, recused herself, citing prior involvement with the case.
Edwards' death enraged the African American community in a city just emerging from some of the nation's highest homicide rates, briefly earning it the nickname "Murderapolis." Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who then headed the county attorney's office, has used Burrell's conviction over the years as an example of her tough-on-crime policies, most recently during a Democratic presidential primary debate last year.
The AP investigation that followed sparked national outrage and gave Burrell's family and community organizers the ammunition they needed to get Klobuchar's attention. She called for the creation of the independent panel of legal experts. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, and Laura Nirider, of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, oversaw that effort.
Klobuchar released a statement Tuesday saying the pardon board made the right decision. She also urged a conviction-review unit to continue investigating the facts.
The yearlong investigation by The AP showed there was no hard evidence — no gun, DNA or fingerprints — tying Burrell to the shooting. Among other things, police did not collect a corner store's surveillance video, which Burrell said could have cleared him. And video footage showed the lead homicide detective offering a man in police custody $500 for Burrell's name, even if it was just hearsay.
Officers relied heavily on a single eyewitness, who offered conflicting accounts, along with jailhouse informants, who benefited generously for testifying. Some have recanted. One had his 16-year prison sentence cut to three. Another said he had agreed to work with police on 14 other cases.