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Sixteen-year-old Myon Burrell was sent to prison for life after a stray bullet killed an 11-year-old girl in Minneapolis in 2002. Amy Klobuchar, who was Minneapolis’ top prosecutor, brought first-degree murder charges as part of a national crackdown on gang violence – a crackdown that engulfed young men of color.  

Burrell maintained his innocence for 18 years in prison. Associated Press reporter Robin McDowell spent a year looking into his case and found that multiple people had lied about Burrell’s involvement in the shooting and that police didn’t talk to his alibi witnesses. In December 2020, the state commuted Burrell’s sentence, allowing him to walk free. 

This end to a prison sentence is rare: Burrell’s case was the first time in at least 28 years that Minnesota commuted a sentence for a violent crime case. But the factors that put Burrell in prison are not rare at all. According to The Sentencing Project, over 10,000 people are serving life sentences in the U.S. for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Half of them are Black. Burrell’s long shot reveals just how difficult it is to right a wrong in our criminal justice system. How many others like Burrell are there?

Dig Deeper

Read: Amy Klobuchar helped jail teen for life, but case was flawed (AP) 
Read: Youth sentenced to life imprisonment (Sentencing Project)

Credits

Reported by: Robin McDowell and Margie Mason | Produced by: Robin McDowell and Sasha Aslanian | Edited by: Catherine Winter | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson |Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: John Minchillo/AP | General counsel: Victoria Baranetsky | Special thanks: MPR News and KARE 11 | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. James White was working as a maintenance man in Minneapolis in 2005 when his boss told him to toss out some junk left behind in a vacant office.
James White:He wanted me to clean it out because one of the lawyers was leaving.
Al Letson:He started hurling boxes from the lawyer’s old office into a dumpster. Then something at the bottom of the dumpster caught his eye, a big box of CDs.
James White:I said, “Whoa, what is them tapes about? What is them CDs about?” I got in the dumps and got the CDs out and looked at them. I didn’t know no names at the time.
Al Letson:The CDs were marked with something that James did recognize.
James White:Because I see Hennepin County on there, Hennepin County on there, on one of the CDs, I said, “These must be jail tapes or something.”
Al Letson:Jail tapes are the recordings of every phone call an inmate makes while in custody, often while awaiting trial. Prosecutors are interested in these conversations because sometimes they contain evidence like people confessing to a crime or pressuring people on the outside to hide evidence. The calls can also be things that point to innocence.
James White:Got curious what people be saying on the phone, so I took them home.
Al Letson:James knew something about how the criminal justice system worked for young Black men. In 1989 he plead guilty to something he says he didn’t do, in order to avoid a much longer sentence. James and his wife started listening to the jail tapes, trying to piece together the story.
Female:Was he with you?
Inmate:Hell nah. Skits wasn’t even there.
Al Letson:Skits was a street name of a Black teenager named Myon Burrell.
Female:He wasn’t?
Inmate:Hell nah.
Female:Why they saying Skits there then? He wasn’t.
Inmate:I don’t know. The nigga that was getting busted said Skits did it.
Female:Nah. You could go to court and testify for him. His mom just died. He ain’t have nothing to do with that.
Inmate:That’s what I was trying to tell them motherfuckers. They like, “You lying. You just trying to help your friend.” I’m like, “Man, whatever, dude.”
Al Letson:Right away some things sounded strange to James. As he kept listening, a story unfolded. James and his wife learned all the characters. It centered on Myon Burrell, who was just 16 when he was arrested for a gang shooting in 2002. A stray bullet struck and killed an 11-year-old girl. From the jailhouse tapes James was listening to, Myon’s co-defendants were saying he wasn’t there. Myon was also saying he was innocent, and James believed him.
James White:I said, “Somebody need to do something about this little guy. This little guy ain’t do nothing. He’s sitting in jail, ain’t doing nothing. He didn’t do nothing.”
Al Letson:By that time, Myon had been sentenced to life in prison. James called his pastor, looking for connections who could help. He got in touch with attorneys asking if they could take the case pro bono. He contacted the media.
James White:I called the newspaper, the lady who was investigating it. She said, “They convicted him. Now ain’t nothing we can do about it.” I said, “Do you want to listen to these CDs I got?” She said wasn’t nothing we can do about it.
Al Letson:15 years went by. James bought a suitcase for the tapes and lugged them each time he moved.
James White:I just kept them with me. I kept them tapes with me. I moved several times, but everywhere I go, them tapes went with me. I said, “One day,” and I told my wife, we always said, “We ever get the money, we’re going to try to get this brother out of jail, because he shouldn’t be there.”
Al Letson:James didn’t know that someone else had taken an interest in Myon’s seemingly hopeless case, an investigative reporter for the Associated Press named Robin McDowell. Her name might sound familiar. Robin was a part of the AP team that broke the story of slavery in the seafood industry and won a Pulitzer Prize. After years of breaking stories like that in Asia, Robin moved back to the States and settled in Minnesota, but she wasn’t expecting to find her next human rights investigation there. Robin’s radio partner on the story, Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports has more.
Sasha Aslanian:When Robin got back from living overseas, she moved to a small town not far from Minnesota’s oldest prison.
Robin McDowell:Prisons really always intrigued me and made me sad. People just drive by them on the highway. It’s just this place where people got put away and you didn’t really know what happened.
Sasha Aslanian:Robin called Stillwater Prison and asked if she could volunteer there. The lady who answered the phone was pleased to get someone with Robin’s experience. The prison had a newspaper.
Robin McDowell:I was surprised there was a paper and excited by it. One of the things I’ve always liked doing is mentoring journalists. The fact that they had one at Stillwater and that it was the oldest prison paper in the country was really exciting to me.
Sasha Aslanian:The Prison Mirror newsroom has three desks, a TV, stacks of newspapers, and a whiteboard, but they can’t call sources outside the prison and they don’t have internet access. Robin’s small staff of three turned over frequently, but they were always white guys in a prison where half the prisoners are Black. Robin is white too. One day she got a new batch of reporters, three men who were Black.
Robin McDowell:I’d hear things about the lack of evidence or things that the police tactics. I was seeing a totally different side of the criminal justice system. It’s when I asked them at one point, “Is there anyone in here that you guys think is innocent?” They all came up with the name Myon Burrell.
Sasha Aslanian:The name Myon Burrell didn’t mean anything to Robin.
Robin McDowell:Remember, I’m new to Minnesota, so I didn’t know anything about the case. They said he was a juvenile at the time, and that really interested me.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon was serving a life sentence for the murder of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. Back in 2002 Tyesha had been sitting at the dining room table at her home in Minneapolis with her little sister, doing homework, when a bullet pierced the wall and struck her in the heart. Authorities believed the stray bullet was intended for a rival gang member. There was immense pressure to solve the case.
Newscaster:The hunt for an 11-year-old girl’s killer continues tonight in Minneapolis.
Newscaster:Police are taking their intense search to the streets.
Newscaster:Search for her killer is tonight’s top story.
Sasha Aslanian:Within days, police had rounded up their suspects, 16-year-old Myon Burrell and two men in their early 20s, Ike Tyson and Hans Williams. The top prosecutor in Minneapolis at the time was Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar. She would go on to win a U.S. Senate seat and run for president. Klobuchar announced first-degree murder charges.
Amy Klobuchar:Burrell, Tyson, and Williams are believed to be gang members. Last Friday they drove by a person that they thought was a member of a rival gang, just north of Tyesha Edwards’s home. They went and got a gun and came back. Tyson and Burrell jumped out of the car and ran between the houses, through the yards in the neighborhoods, and then Burrell began firing his gun at the intended target.
Sasha Aslanian:Ike and Hans pleaded guilty. Ike got 45 years, and Hans, who drove the getaway car, got 30. Myon said he was innocent and went to trial. He was convicted. When Robin started looking into his case, he was serving a life sentence. There are about 10,000 people serving life sentences in the United States for crimes committed when they were juveniles. That’s according to the Sentencing Project, a group that works to end mass incarceration. Most of these juvenile lifers were locked up between 1993 and 2003, the heyday of the tough-on-crime period, when Myon was arrested. Half of them are Black. Robin’s son is Black. He was 16, the same age Myon was when he was arrested. Robin hung Myon’s photo on their fridge at home. She drew a map of the crime scene on her bedroom wall.
Robin McDowell:Initially when I sat down to look at the court documents, I started to wonder myself is he innocent, because basically what you’re getting there is the police narrative and the prosecutor’s, and whatever witnesses they have pulled up to strengthen their case. When you just look at the documents initially, it’s very confusing. Even I started to feel like, “Is this a case that is really worth pursuing?” He looks guilty.
Sasha Aslanian:Police first heard Myon’s name in connection with the shooting from a jail inmate. The man saw the story about Tyesha’s killing on the TV news that night and was hoping to trade some intel to help his own case. He’d worked with police before. From that point on, documents show police cementing their narrative around Myon as the gunman. Robin read through the police report and watched the interrogation videos in the evidence box to piece together how they built their case. No gun, no DNA, no fingerprints linked Myon to Tyesha’s shooting. All police had to go on was what people had told them. Police tried to flesh out the tip from the original jailhouse informant. They picked up a guy named Harold from Myon’s neighborhood. Here’s the lead homicide detective, Richard Zimmerman, offering Harold cash for any information he might have, even if it was just things he’d heard on the street.
Richard Zimmerm…:Hearsay is still worth something to me, because hearsay, you know how sometimes if you work back hearsay, and I’m working around. I get hearsay here, hearsay here. Sometimes it’s like a jigsaw puzzle.
Sasha Aslanian:This was three days after the shooting.
Richard Zimmerm…:If I can get the names of the people that did this to this little girl, it’s worth some major dollars to me, and nobody ever knows.
Sasha Aslanian:Zimmerman offers $500 per name. Harold’s response is hard to hear, but he says he doesn’t know anything, and then he gives a handful of names anyway. He gets paid for one of them, Myon’s. That same day, police picked up the guy who was the intended target of the bullet that killed Tyesha. His name was Timmy Oliver. He was 17. Police questioned Timmy for eight hours. There’s no recording of that, but after midnight, Timmy signed a statement saying the shooter was Myon Burrell. With their eyewitness statement secured, police went looking for Myon.
Robin McDowell:When Myon was picked up for his interrogation, he initially did not seem to understand exactly why he was there or what was going on. He thought they were there to ask about a friend who had a warrant and ran away.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon’s three-hour interrogation was videotaped. You can see him. He’s 5’3″. He’s a high school junior. He’s wearing baggy pants, a red sweatshirt, and matching baseball cap. Myon had had scrapes with the law, a small drug bust, and a curfew violation, but nothing like this. By this point in his life, he’s the father of a one-year-old son, but when he’s left alone in the room, he looks like a kid who doesn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation. He spins around in his chair. At one point he does some push-ups. When police ask him where he was the day of the shooting, he first says the Mall of America, but that wasn’t true. The detective tells him the other guys they’ve talked to say he did it.
Detective:You want to tell us your side?
Myon Burrell:I don’t know anything about what happened to that little girl or anything [crosstalk].
Detective:You don’t want to talk to us and tell us about that?
Myon Burrell:I don’t know anything about that, but I don’t know what Ike was-
Robin McDowell:As soon as he started realizing that they actually were interested in him and suspected him of something, he started asking for his mother.
Myon Burrell:Me being a juvenile, interrogation, don’t I get a … Can I call my mother? Because [crosstalk].
Detective:Have you ever been arrested in Minnesota before or holding in Minnesota?
Sasha Aslanian:In most states, including Minnesota, it’s legal for police to question a child without notifying the parent.
Robin McDowell:He asked for her in total 13 times. It wasn’t until after he asked for her the third time that they read his Miranda rights and then he continued to ask and ask and ask, and they kept saying, “You’ll get to talk to her. Just wait. We just want to talk to you first,” when in fact she was in one of the rooms right next door asking to see her son.
Sasha Aslanian:That’s also on tape.
Marketta Burrel…:Am I able to see my son yet?
Detective:It’ll be a little bit, yeah.
Robin McDowell:They were telling her the same thing, “Just wait. Just wait.”
Sasha Aslanian:Then they told Marketta Burrell her son was a suspect in a murder investigation.
Detective:We believe your son shot at some opposing gang member and the bullet went through and struck a 12-year-old girl and killed her. I wouldn’t say that unless we believed it.
Marketta Burrel…:Let me ask you this. You said there were other people.
Detective:Yes.
Marketta Burrel…:They were probably also shooting too.
Detective:No. No.
Marketta Burrel…:Nobody else was shooting? One shooter?
Detective:Yeah. Yeah.
Robin McDowell:At that point they had no evidence, and you’re convincing a mother that your son has killed a little girl.
Marketta Burrel…:They won’t let me see him.
Sasha Aslanian:The video show’s Myon’s mother sobbing as she makes phone calls on a borrowed cellphone to tell family members the devastating news. Detectives go back and forth between mother and son, and they use an interrogation technique aimed at breaking down suspects. They try to think Myon think his mother has turned on him, and it shakes him.
Detective:I talked to your mom in depth about it, and you know what your mom told me?
Myon Burrell:What’d she tell you?
Detective:She told me you’re capable of doing that. Hold on.
Myon Burrell:I’m capable of doing what?
Detective:You’re capable of shooting a gun at a gang member, because who … Hold on.
Myon Burrell:Are you serious? Did my mom say that?
Detective:Yeah.
Myon Burrell:That’s a lie. That’s not truthful. That’s not truthful, because my mom knows that I don’t even believe in that.
Sasha Aslanian:It’s legal for police to lie during an interrogation, but Myon’s lie about being at the Mall of America would cost him. Prosecutors would use it as evidence of guilt. Myon was certified as an adult and placed in solitary confinement. A month later, his mother was killed in a car accident driving home from visiting him in jail. When his trial came the next year, he was convicted. Myon challenged his conviction. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned it. The court said the fact that he’d asked for his mother 13 times indicated he didn’t understand his Miranda rights, and he was granted a new trial, but five years after his first trial, he was convicted again. By the time Robin started looking into his case, he was nearly out of legal options.
Robin McDowell:Really to get him back in court, you needed to find new evidence that would prove he was innocent. That after 18 years seemed impossible.
Sasha Aslanian:Robin was skeptical she’d find it. She wasn’t sure if she could sell her editors on the story, but the guys at the prison newspaper had gotten her interested in why there were such radically different takes on Myon’s innocence or guilt. Myon learned from the prison rumor mill that a reporter was potentially interested in his case. His family ran a free Myon Burrell website and Facebook page, but they weren’t getting much traction. They asked Robin if she would meet with them.
Robin McDowell:They had gone through numerous lawyers by this point. They were pretty desperate, I would say, and were just really excited that somebody was going to look at their case. I went over there. Myon’s dad was there and his brother was there and his stepmom was there and his sister was there and everyone talking a little bit about it. Myon’s dad and his brother had both spent time in jail themselves for crimes that they said they committed. They’re like, “We did it. We went to jail and we did it, but Myon wasn’t there, and everyone in the neighborhood knows it.”
Sasha Aslanian:Myon’s wife, Lucretia Luckett, was a childhood friend who’d married him when he was in prison. She knew every detail of his case. This is Lucretia speaking at a community meeting.
Lucretia Lucket…:Everybody on the street knew he was innocent, but how do you stand up against the Minneapolis Police Department?
Sasha Aslanian:It’s hard to hear, but she’s saying, “How do you stand up against the Minneapolis Police Department?” Lucretia thought her husband had been railroaded. When Robin talked with her, Lucretia knocked down all the evidence against him.
Robin McDowell:Every time she’d be like, “That person’s lying. That person must’ve been given something.” If you’re hearing that again and again and again, it’s like, “Oh my god. How many people are lying here? This can’t be.” By the end that’s what I was saying. You start feeling like you’re in this conspiracy thing, but then people are admitting they’re lying or they got a crazy deal or they were pressured or threatened.
Al Letson:When we come back, Robin digs in to what investigators left out when they built their murder case against 16-year-old Myon Burrell, including the man who says he was the real trigger man.
Shooter:I would rather him get out than still be locked up for something that I did.
Robin McDowell:At which point did you admit to being the actual shooter?
Shooter:I told them that I was shooting from the beginning.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:Hey hey hey, this is Al, and if you’re listening to me right now then you know Reveal does hard-hitting investigative journalism. You can support what we do by becoming a member. Just text the word reveal to 474747. Standard data rates apply, and you can text stop at any time. Again, text reveal to 474747. Thank you.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Myon Burrell had been locked up for half his life when an investigative reporter started looking into his case in 2018. He was in his early 30s, serving a life sentence. Robin McDowell had started investigating the case because she wanted to do a story about the impact that the get-tough-on-crime era had on teenagers, but the more she looked, the more she came to doubt the evidence against Myon. Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports continues our story.
Sasha Aslanian:In 2019 Robin requested interviews with the Minneapolis Police to talk about their investigation into Myon’s case. She especially had questions about that video in the evidence box, showing they’d offered money for hearsay. They stonewalled her, so she went door knocking.
Robin McDowell:Hi.
Richard Zimmerm…:Hi.
Robin McDowell:I’m trying to reach Lieutenant Zimmerman. That looks like you.
Richard Zimmerm…:What’s that?
Robin McDowell:You’re Lieutenant Zimmerman?
Richard Zimmerm…:Yes.
Robin McDowell:Hi, my name’s Robin McDowell. I’m a reporter with Associated Press. I’ve been trying-
Sasha Aslanian:The lead homicide detective refused to talk with her.
Richard Zimmerm…:I have no comment. Thank you.
Robin McDowell:Do you know what I’m here to talk about? Excuse me. Mr. Zimmerman, I’d like to show you a video. Can I show you a video?
Robin McDowell:Hey.
Sasha Aslanian:Robin set out to find people who were there or heard something or knew something. It was slow work.
Robin McDowell:Are you going to bite?
Robin McDowell:A lot of the key people were dead. Other people were in prison. It was just like, “God, how am I going to find these people using their nicknames on Facebook, not using their real names?”
Robin McDowell:That’s right. I’m looking for Dameon Leake. Does he still live here?
Female:[Daby]?
Robin McDowell:Dameon.
Female:Daby, no, he don’t live here.
Robin McDowell:Do you know where he lives now? Does he live up on Bryant maybe?
Sasha Aslanian:One thing that became evident to Robin is police hadn’t put much energy into collecting evidence that would support Myon’s side of the story. On the interrogation tape, he’d told them where to look.
Robin McDowell:You don’t know until you listen to the whole tape and get near the end that he says, “I was at Cup Foods. Get the tape.”
Sasha Aslanian:Police records indicate the convenience store surveillance footage was reviewed, but never collected and entered as evidence. Myon also named two alibi witnesses who he said were with him at the store.
Robin McDowell:As Myon’s starting to get more and more frustrated and realize, “Wait a minute. They don’t believe me. They’re coming down on me hard,” that they should just talk to his friends, “I was there with Tasha,” or, “Talk to Dino.” They basically were like, “Who’s that? Are they going to say that you were together?” He’s like, “Yeah, go talk to them,” but neither of them was ever approached by police.
Sasha Aslanian:It took a while, but Robin found both of them. Latasha Evans recalled standing outside Cup Foods with Myon that afternoon.
Latasha Evans:I don’t know what we was talking about, but we was definitely just out there hanging. I think I was smoking. Next thing you know, we heard gunshots. A few minutes later a lot of police and stuff. After we hear all that, we just left. This my exact words I said to him. I said, “Make sure you take your ass home.” I said, “Go home, bro. Go home. I do not want to see you get blamed for this.” That’s my exact words. I can’t believe I just said that and he got blamed for it.
Sasha Aslanian:The other friend, Dino, whose real name is Donnell Jones, told Robin he went to Cup Foods with Myon that afternoon. With Dino contacted Myon’s attorney, he never got back to him. That’s the attorney whose tapes were in the dumpster. He was later suspended for neglecting client matters. The case against Myon hinged on the eyewitness testimony of Timmy Oliver, the 17-year-old who was the intended target of the bullet that killed Tyesha. Timmy told the police Myon was the shooter. Timmy was killed the next year in another gunfight, so it’s impossible to confirm his story, but a friend of Timmy’s who was at the scene that day says Timmy told him a different story immediately after the gun was fired. That friend’s name is Antoine Williams. Antoine said Timmy told him he couldn’t see the shooter.
Antoine William…:I ran outside and I asked him where the shots come from, who’s shot. He said he didn’t know, he couldn’t tell. They just was shooting fast. He really couldn’t tell where it was coming from or who was shooting.
Sasha Aslanian:Antoine told that story to a private investigator hired by Myon’s family in 2010. Antoine told the investigator Timmy had been pressured by police.
Antoine William…:Basically use the word they tricked me. Police kept throwing pictures in front of him, and he thought he was in trouble, because he was their intended target.
Private Investi…:He was afraid of the cops for himself?
Antoine William…:Yeah, that’s what it is.
Private Investi…:You’re saying he’s trying to cooperate to get the heat off, the pressure off of himself?
Antoine William…:Pretty much.
Private Investi…:Pretty much?
Antoine William…:Yes.
Sasha Aslanian:Timmy wasn’t alive to testify in Myon’s second trial, so prosecutors had to change tactics.
Robin McDowell:They basically shored up the case by combing the prisons and looking for jailhouse informants.
Sasha Aslanian:They found seven of them.
Robin McDowell:I was told that that is an extraordinarily high number, that often the prosecutors will rely on one jailhouse informant, sometimes two, but seven, that raises red flags. They don’t have anything else in their bag of tricks, basically.
Sasha Aslanian:Jailhouse informants are motivated. They can shave years off their own sentences. Some deals are hard to resist. We interviewed one of the informants, who’s back in prison again.
Terry Arrington:The police approached me when I was in federal holding, and they asked me did I want to do something to get some time back.
Sasha Aslanian:Terry Arrington was 22 years old and locked up on drug and weapons charges. Suddenly he had a way to get home much faster. He knew Myon, but he says he didn’t really know anything about the shooting, so investigators briefed him.
Terry Arrington:They basically brought me through what to say, to hit on this, hit on this, so hey, I was still young and I had fresh kids out there I was trying to get home to, so I did what they asked.
Sasha Aslanian:Terry had been facing more than 16 years of prison time. After he testified that was cut to three. He says the decision to lie weighs on him. Most of the others also had time shaved off their sentences. According to one of Myon’s attorneys, another informant has also recanted. So has Ike Tyson, one of the three men originally arrested in Tyesha’s killing. Remember those phone calls from jail that were on the CDs James White found in the dumpster?
Ike Tyson:I think it was last night po-po came in here like, “Yeah, we got Skits.”
Sasha Aslanian:Ike Tyson was telling people that Myon wasn’t there. He called him Skits.
Female:Oh my goodness.
Ike Tyson:[inaudible] like, “Yeah, we got your little homey Skits.” I’m like, “Dang, my little homey, he’s going to be fucked up.”
Female:Somebody is snitching.
Sasha Aslanian:We interviewed Ike in prison, where he’s serving a 45-year sentence for his role in Tyesha’s murder. Ike pleaded guilty, and in his plea deal he said Myon shot the gun. Ike said the prosecutor and detectives told him he’d never see the outside of prison unless he said it was Myon.
Ike Tyson:I would rather the truth just be out that this dude didn’t do anything, he shouldn’t be locked up. You still got the person that really did it is me. I’m locked up. I’m sorry.
Sasha Aslanian:Ike won’t say who the third person actually was, but Hans Williams, the getaway driver, named someone when he was on the witness stand, and even pointed out his picture. Police say they looked into it and ruled that suspect out. The case file indicates the recording of the interview with that suspect was permanently checked out in 2007 on behalf of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. We were told they can’t locate it.
Sasha Aslanian:When Ike and Hans and Myon were arrested in 2002, Minneapolis was just starting to recover from soaring homicide rates that had earned it the grim nickname Murderapolis, but guns and gang warfare continued to ravish poor neighborhoods. After Tyesha’s killing, her mother spoke at a vigil.
Tyesha’s Mother:Please, please let’s stop the violence. Please. That was just senseless is what it is. It’s just senseless. Now that we’ve got your attention, please, everybody, we need to pull together as a community and do something about this.
Mel Reeves:Everybody’s upset because a kid’s gotten killed.
Sasha Aslanian:Mel Reeves is an editor for the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in Minnesota. He says the crackdown that swept up Myon is a well-worn story of pinning blame, not finding justice.
Mel Reeves:Every time a child gets shot, everybody’s up in arms. The conservative people in our community, it’s like, “Oh, look how terrible our community is. We’re killing kids.” Politicians’ ears perk up. The Amy Klobuchars in the world see an opportunity and they take it, “We’re going to be tough on crime.” You got to remember people in our community wanted folks to be tough on crime, because crime happens in our community.
Sasha Aslanian:Mel says the Black community is over-policed and mistrust runs deep.
Mel Reeves:Most Black people are intelligent enough to know that the system doesn’t work for us. We just hope for the best.
Sasha Aslanian:One of the dividing lines in how people view Myon’s case is over a detail early on. When police first questioned Myon, he lied about where he was. Police, prosecutors, even his own white defense attorneys, were suspicious. If you’re innocent, why lie? In Myon’s community, the question was different. Why trust police? When we interviewed Myon in Stillwater Prison, he told us when he learned that lesson. He was 12. A neighbor attacked his older sister with a switchblade and cut her hand. Myon’s mom called police. When the squad rolled up to their apartment, Myon was out front on his bike. Police told him to freeze and put his hands in the air. Myon was confused and didn’t comply.
Myon Burrell:One of the cops grabbed me off my bike and dragged me down the stairs, dragged me through the front of my yard, and put me on, it was a fence in the front. My mom’s sitting there, she crying. She like, “That’s my baby. He didn’t do anything.” They pulled they guns on them and like, “Shut up. Whatever. Let us handle this.” Everybody came out. It’s a whole bunch of people out there. They’re like, “That’s a little kid. Get your hands off him.” I remember to this day it was just digging. It’s a fence. It got points at the top of the fence. He’s just grinding my chest into the fence. I’m probably saying slick stuff. I don’t want to really break down in front of everybody, but I’m hurt. I remember just being shook, like, “These are police.”
Sasha Aslanian:Police took Myon downtown, and his mom had to go get him out. Myon’s older sister confirmed his account of the incident. The encounter with police seared two things into Myon’s memory. The police weren’t on his side, and he remembered his mom’s look of helplessness as she watched them take him away.
Sasha Aslanian:When Myon was arrested in the early 2000s, both Democrats and Republicans were embracing a tough-on-crime message to get elected. Amy Klobuchar ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, and this was a radio ad her opponent, Republican Mark Kennedy, ran against her.
Female:If you’re calling from one of the neighborhoods where violent crimes increased 35% in the last three years while Amy Klobuchar was prosecutor, we probably won’t be going door to door in your neighborhood.
Sasha Aslanian:Klobuchar’s ad featured Tyesha’s mother.
Tyesha’s Mother:When my little girl Tyesha was murdered, Amy saw to it that those gang members were put away. Mark Kennedy, you should be ashamed.
Sasha Aslanian:Years later in 2019 when Amy Klobuchar was running for president, she brought up Tyesha’s case on the debate stage in Houston.
Amy Klobuchar:I am proud of the work our staff did. 400 people in our office. The cases that came to us, the African American that came to us, they said there was no justice for their little kids. There was a kid named Byron Phillips that was shot on his front porch. No one had bothered to figure out who did it. When I came into that office, we worked with the community groups, we put up billboards, we found the shooter, and we put him in jail. We did the same for the killer of a little girl named Tyesha Edwards who was doing her homework at her kitchen table and was shot through the window.
Robin McDowell:I was like, “Wow. Did she just go there?” Because this really turned it into something that was a topical story, so I jumped on a plane.
Sasha Aslanian:Robin had been reporting Myon’s case for months. She flew to New York to persuade her editors it was a story worth publishing. She went to the AP office with tape of her interviews.
Robin McDowell:“Take a listen.” It did. There were mouths open, like, “What?”
Sasha Aslanian:Klobuchar’s fresh reference to Myon’s case made it a bigger story. It provoked people, like Mel Reeves from the Spokesman-Recorder.
Mel Reeves:She forgot that she had a skeleton in the closet, a big ole one named Myon Burrell. Folks like me are good at pointing those kind of things out.
Protesters:Prosecution without evidence is persecution! Free Myon!
Sasha Aslanian:There were lots of people who hadn’t forgotten.
Protesters:When do we want that? Now!
Sasha Aslanian:The Free Myon Burrell Facebook page live-streamed a rally in Downtown Minneapolis calling for a new trial.
Protesters:17 years! When do we want him back? Now! Who’s a liar? Amy Klobuchar! Free who?
Sasha Aslanian:For weeks, Robin had been trying to get Senator Klobuchar on the record to answer questions about her office’s handling of Myon’s case.
Robin McDowell:I was making it clear, “This is really explosive. This is not going to be something you don’t want to address.” Certainly I would’ve thought they’d want to get in front of it.
Sasha Aslanian:The campaign released a two-paragraph statement that Myon Burrell had been tried and convicted twice. The second trial occurred when Senator Klobuchar was no longer the prosecutor. It said, “If there’s new evidence in this case, it should be immediately reviewed by the court.” In January of 2020 Robin’s deep dive into Myon’s case ran on AP and Minnesota Public Radio.
Male:Their reporting raises questions about how police conducted their investigation and whether the teenager sentenced to life may have been wrongfully convicted.
Sasha Aslanian:Reaction was swift. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace grilled Klobuchar.
Amy Klobuchar:What I have asked to happen.
Chris Wallace:Senator, you’re not answering my question. Did you know about the fact that there was this questionable evidence that the police were coming up with?
Amy Klobuchar:I didn’t know about this new evidence, no. I didn’t know about this new evidence until I saw this report. I couldn’t have. I haven’t been in the office for 12 years.
Sasha Aslanian:Sunny Hostin went after her on The View.
Sunny Hostin:You’re a U.S. Senator.
Amy Klobuchar:Thank you for bringing it up.
Sunny Hostin:You’re a U.S. Senator now. You’re a powerful woman. What do you intend to do to right this wrong?
Amy Klobuchar:I’ve called for the office and the courts to review the evidence. That is what we must do in the justice system.
Sasha Aslanian:Klobuchar called on her successor, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, to review any new evidence in the case. Freeman had overseen Myon’s second trial in 2008, the one that relied on all the jailhouse informants. He released a video statement, standing by the verdict.
Mike Freeman:Contrary to some reports, this was solid police investigation and prosecution. We believe the right man was convicted in this heinous crime. However, as we have said before, if new evidence is submitted to us, we will gladly review it.
Sasha Aslanian:As allegations about Myon’s case swirled around Klobuchar, the candidate tried to redirect the criticism of the case to those who had the power to reopen it. She met with Myon’s family and supported an independent legal review, but some of Myon’s supporters demanded she drop out of the case.
Newscaster:It was almost unbelievable to see how this night unfolded. Senator Klobuchar sets a rally in her home state only to have a determined group of protesters change things. Now the protesters marched into St. Louis Park High School about 30 minutes before the rally was supposed to start.
Protesters:Klobuchar has got to go!
Sasha Aslanian:Senator Klobuchar had already been polling in the single digits. The next day, she withdrew from the presidential race.
Newscaster:Breaking right now, Senator Amy Klobuchar has announced that she is suspending her campaign.
Newscaster:We are following breaking news at the moment. CBSN has learned Senator Amy Klobuchar is dropping out of the Democratic race for president and will endorse Joe Biden.
Al Letson:Just a few months after Amy Klobuchar drops out of the presidential race, another major news event happens in Minneapolis.
Laura Nirider:There’s an awakening that’s happening. People are starting to ask really important questions, rather than just blindly trusting the criminal justice system to get it right.
Al Letson:How the death of George Floyd puts renewed attention on Myon Burrell’s case, that’s next on Reveal.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Robin McDowell’s investigation brought national attention to Myon Burrell’s case when it first came out in January of last year, but Myon was still locked up in prison, serving a life sentence for a murder he insisted he didn’t commit. He asked to go before the pardons board, but the board hadn’t commuted a sentence for a violent crime in decades. Then four months after Robin’s story was published.
Dispatcher:412 Minneapolis, [inaudible] Chicago Avenue, code two for medical.
Al Letson:That’s the dispatcher’s call from the day George Floyd died in Minneapolis. Former police officer Derek Chauvin is now on trial for Floyd’s death. Floyd was outside of Cup Foods. That’s the same convenience store where Myon Burrell said he was on the afternoon of Tyesha’s shooting. With Floyd’s death, long simmering tensions between the Minneapolis Police and communities of color exploded.
Protesters:Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name louder, you all! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd!
Al Letson:Robin wondered how Myon’s case would be affected.
Robin McDowell:I think what actually happened is that it put a new spotlight on Myon’s case and made it more believable to some people who may have been doubting that Minnesota actually got it wrong.
Al Letson:Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports continues our story.
Sasha Aslanian:After Robin’s story on Myon’s case was released, Senator Amy Klobuchar called for an independent review. A panel of legal experts examined the case, and in December, came out with their findings. The 59-page report said the police appeared to have suffered from tunnel vision while investigating Myon’s case, and they ignored witnesses and evidence that might have helped clear him. The panel concluded no purpose was served by Myon’s continued incarceration. They wrote, “Two things have changed dramatically since Tyesha Edwards’s killing in 2002. One is Myon Burrell. The other is the way our nation looks at the sentencing of juvenile offenders, such as the 16-year-old at issue in this case.” The chair of that panel was Mark Osler, a former assistant U.S. attorney and law professor. He said the idea that young people who commit crimes are so-called super predators has been widely discredited.
Mark Osler:Brain science advanced from that point. One thing that we’ve seen is a line of Supreme Court cases that has embraced the idea that juveniles need to be sentenced differently than adults are, because they’re at a different stage in life and they’re more capable of change.
Sasha Aslanian:The harsh sentences that led to mass incarceration may be falling out of favor, but there are still thousands of people locked up for life, for crimes they committed as juveniles. Laura Nirider, Co-Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, sees an increasing interest in revisiting those cases.
Laura Nirider:Over and over and over again these stories are being told and capturing the public’s attention in a way that hasn’t happened before. There’s an awakening that’s happening. People are starting to ask really important questions, rather than just blindly trusting the criminal justice system to get it right.
Sasha Aslanian:A week after the legal panel gave its assessment, Myon got his chance to appear before the Minnesota Board of Pardons. It’s a three-member panel, made up of the governor, the attorney general, and the Supreme Court chief justice. They have to be unanimous. The board hadn’t commuted a sentence for a violent crime in almost 30 years. The chief justice recused herself so it was down to two. Myon sat in a conference room at Stillwater Prison, dressed in a white Muslim prayer cap. He’d been elected imam by his fellow inmates. He prepared to address the governor and attorney general over Zoom. He would have just under 12 minutes to describe the man he had become in 18 years behind bars.
Male:Please proceed, Mr. Burrell.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon began by talking about Tyesha.
Myon Burrell:This is not in any way, shape, or form me trying to minimize the tragedy of the loss of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. My heart goes out to her family as well as everybody else that was affected by her murder back in 2002.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon said he didn’t do it.
Myon Burrell:I come before you a 34-year-old man who’s spent more than half of his life incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit.
Sasha Aslanian:The board wouldn’t determine his guilt or innocence. It would focus on his character and if he should remain behind bars. Myon described all the programs he’d completed, in the hopes that one day he might get to go home and live life as a productive member of society.
Myon Burrell:Despite me being incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit, I try to make the best of my situation. I tried to go in and extract some medicine up out of the poison. The trials and tribulations I was going through, I tried to get something out of it.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon’s attorney and a few others spoke on his behalf. Then the board announced its decision.
Tim Walz:I, Governor Walz, vote in favor of granting this request. Mr. Burrell, you’ve been granted a commutation to your sentence of 20 years. The Commissioner of Corrections will work with you and your family immediately. I wish you the best. Thank you.
Myon Burrell:Thank you. Thank you. Thank you all. I appreciate it.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon would be released after 18 years, with the final two years of his 20-year sentence on supervised release. Senator Klobuchar issued a statement calling it the right decision. He hadn’t been pardoned. He was still a felon, and he would wear an ankle bracelet, but Myon walked free from prison that night.
Robin McDowell:That was really surreal.
Myon Burrell:I looked up and I seen all these people out in the lobby. It’s like, “Whoa.” Then I heard them chanting and screaming and it’s like, “Whoa.” It was so surreal. It’s like coming from the darkness into the light. It felt so good. It felt like every step I took, it was just bricks, just bricks and bricks and bricks just being removed from my shoulders.
Robin McDowell:He was walking out those doors, the same doors I’d been going in every week. I can’t even explain it. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had.
Sasha Aslanian:In 2002, Myon Burrell came up against a system that couldn’t hear his pleas of innocence. Police, prosecutors, even his own defense attorneys let him down, but it was painfully obvious to someone who had listened to the tapes. James White, the maintenance man who found the jail tapes in the dumpster, emailed the AP in December. He had something he wanted to give to Myon. Five days after his release, Myon came to his home.
James White:They’re yours, brother. They’re yours. They’re yours.
Myon Burrell:Man. Whoa. You had them for all these years, huh?
James White:Yeah, brother.
Myon Burrell:Man.
James White:I’m sorry I couldn’t get nobody to do anything, but hopefully something can come out of this, because you didn’t deserve nothing that happened to you. You didn’t deserve nothing. You shouldn’t have never been charged.
Sasha Aslanian:Myon is still fighting for full exoneration. The tapes could help him prove his innocence, so he won’t be a felon anymore. The men shook hands and embraced, and then they reminisced about men they knew from prison.
James White:Is Popeye still in there?
Myon Burrell:The old man Popeye?
James White:He’d be old now, but I was in there 30 years, 20 years ago.
Myon Burrell:He passed away I think.
James White:Did he?
Myon Burrell:Yeah.
James White:Dog gone somewhere?
Myon Burrell:Dog gone home.
James White:He home?
Myon Burrell:Yeah. He just went home two years ago.
James White:For real?
Myon Burrell:Three years ago, yeah.
James White:He was there a long time.
Sasha Aslanian:While Myon fights to be exonerated, Robin McDowell keeps getting calls.
Machine:Rush City Correctional Facility. This call is from a correction facility and is subject to monitoring.
Machine:An inmate at the Minneapolis Department of Corrections, Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. To accept this free call, press zero.
Robin McDowell:I hear almost every day from somebody.
Inmate:I wasn’t involved in the murder, so you’re barking up the wrong tree. I keep telling you I don’t know anything.
Inmate:Scary shit that was going on, and I didn’t know what to do.
Robin McDowell:If I hadn’t done Myon’s story and I was getting these same calls and looking at their cases, I’d be like, “Yeah, he looks guilty.” Now when I get the calls and I look up the cases and I start seeing the same patterns that I saw with Myon, I just have another weight on my shoulders of, “This guy could be innocent or at the very least serving a sentence that’s way too long. I’ll probably never get to the case.”
Al Letson:That was Associated Press reporter Robin McDowell, along with APM Reports’s Sasha Aslanian.
Al Letson:Most people serving life sentences don’t have an investigative reporter show up to volunteer at their prison and spend a year reinvestigating their case. Most don’t have ties to a presidential candidate to make their story more appealing to news editors. George Floyd’s killing probably also played a role. Floyd’s death gripped Minnesota and put a spotlight on systemic racism before the eyes of the world. There are efforts around the country to review old cases like Myon’s. About a dozen states have set up sentencing review units or conviction review units. Minnesota is establishing one, but it’s unlikely all the Myons out there will get anyone to give their old cases a second look.
Al Letson:Our story was produced by Robin McDowell of the AP and Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports. It was edited by Catherine Winter of APM Reports. Margie Mason co-wrote the AP series and assisted with reporting. Thanks to NPR News and Cara Levine for archival footage. Thanks also to Reveal’s Catherine [Muskowski]. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Bret Simpson. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenburg. Sumi Aggarwal is our intern editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Female:From PRX.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Simpson (she/her) is an assistant producer for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism. Simpson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.