MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - An independent panel of national legal experts will review the conviction of an African American teenager who was sentenced to life in prison nearly two decades ago for the murder of a little girl, struck by a stray bullet while studying in her south Minneapolis home, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the New York-based Innocence Project announced Monday.
Myon Burrell’s case captured headlines, first at the time of his 2002 arrest, and again this year after Sen. Amy Klobuchar touted it during her run for the U.S. presidency. She used it as an example of how — when she was the top prosecutor in Hennepin County — she helped find justice for the African American community outraged by gun violence and the senseless death of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, who was also Black.
After the Associated Press highlighted flaws in the investigation that pointed to a possible wrongful conviction, Klobuchar called for a review of the case, saying justice is not only about punishing the guilty but protecting the innocent. She also said she supported the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit and a Sentencing Review Board to look into other potentially flawed cases.
Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project and one of the first proponents for Conviction Integrity Units nationwide, called the review of Burrell’s case an important first step. Scheck was one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys.
He and Laura Nirider — co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, who led efforts to identify and select prospective panel members — will act as advisors as the team looks at the evidence that led to Burrell’s conviction and the appropriateness of his sentence.
“A conviction integrity review is a non-adversarial process that seeks cooperation from prosecutors, defenders and police,” said Scheck, who is an expert in best practices in conviction integrity and will guide the panel on the process. “Best practices today include consideration of excessive sentences as well as a review of guilt or innocence and the fairness of the trial.”
“In the end, CIUs often ask the question after reviewing all the evidence, ‘if we had known all of this at the time we charged the defendant, would we have arrested him in the first place?’”
Nirider, a Minnesota native, who represents juveniles who were wrongfully convicted of crimes, including Brendan Dassey, subject of the Netflix Global series “Making a Murderer,” said the panel is filled with some of the country’s top legal minds, including a former state attorney general, the leader of one of the first Conviction Integrity Units in the country, and the past president of the national Innocence Network.
It also includes several state and national experts on race, sentencing, and the criminal justice system, she said.
The death of George Floyd — killed by police in May at a south Minneapolis corner store just three blocks from where Tyesha was shot — has put a spotlight on Minnesota and its long history of racial injustice.
Many members of the state’s African American community feel the system is stacked against them, from the time of their arrest to the charges and the courts, to the length of their sentences.
The 1990s and 2000s were some of the worst for young Black men in America.
A largely discredited theory about a remorseless, teen criminals — dubbed “superpredators” — resulted in a tripling of the number of youths thrown in adult facilities, thousands of them sentenced to life. The vast majority were African American. While the pendulum has plainly started to swing back, without reforms, many of those young men will likely die in prison.
Perry Moriearty, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the state has long prided itself on having a progressive penal system, but that is clearly not true when it comes to the punishment of young Black males.
“Black juveniles in Minnesota are eight times more likely to be prosecuted as adults than white juveniles, and we subject them to extraordinarily harsh sentences,” she said. “Even as states across the country are abandoning life sentences for adolescents, we continue to permit life without parole or its equivalent. We are on our way to becoming an outlier.”
Burrell, 16 at the time of Tyesha’s killing, has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence saying he was not even at the scene.
A yearlong AP investigation found there was no hard evidence — no gun, fingerprints, DNA — linking him to the crime.
Surveillance tape that Burrell told police would clear him was never pulled from Cup Food, a store just a few hundred yards from Tyesha’s house. Much of the state’s case relied on jailhouse informants, several of whom have since recanted. And another man has admitted to the shooting, saying Burrell was not even present.
The panel reviewing Burrell’s case has the support of several Minnesota organizations, including the Minneapolis NAACP, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, and the ACLU of Minnesota and panel members, Nirider said.
The panel hopes to release its findings in the next four to five months.