A panel of national experts who reviewed Myon Burrell's conviction for the fatal shooting of a child bystander in Minneapolis recommended he be released from a life prison term and that authorities continue to investigate his case.
The group, which released its findings Tuesday afternoon, did not examine Burrell's guilt or innocence in the 2002 killing of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, who was struck by a stray bullet as she did homework at her dining room table.
However, the 59-page independent report expressed concerns with investigators' and prosecutors' reliance on jailhouse informants and the minimal attention — or complete lack thereof — paid to evidence and witnesses that favored Burrell's exoneration.
\" … The panel believes that no purpose is served by Burrell's continuing incarceration, and no negative fact overwhelms the imperative of freedom,\" the report said.
It also referenced the growing understanding of how minors' underdeveloped brains differ from adults', and its application to prison terms.
Burrell, 34, was 16 when he was identified as the person who fired gunshots at a rival gang member in Minneapolis; a bullet penetrated a nearby home and killed Edwards.
The panel recommended that Attorney General Keith Ellison's new Conviction Review Unit continue to examine the police investigation into Burrell and his prosecution by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.
\"The record to date reveals several indications that tunnel vision was present in the case,\" the report said. \" … Evidence supporting these theories of Burrell's guilt appears to have been elevated, while evidence supporting his innocence was minimized, not fully explored, or, in some cases, suppressed.\"
Ellison said the Conviction Review Unit is still being set up and needs time to create its processes and policies, but should be operating within six months.
Ellison, who sits on the board of pardons along with Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, refrained from taking a stance on the panel's recommendation to release Burrell.
Ellison said he would decide the matter next week. He and Walz will decide; Gildea excused herself due to her prior involvement in the case.
\"It appears that it was thorough,\" Ellison said of the report. \"It appears that a lot of car was put into it; it's a good product.\"
The panel reviewed police reports, court transcripts and other evidence, and interviewed several people. The county attorney's office was \"understandably\" unable to provide the panel with Burrell's prosecution file due to the volume of material, expense and the \"tight schedule,\" the panel said.
Edwards' biological father, Jimmie Edwards, told the panel: \"If you do the crime, you do the time. [Burrell] is a thug and his whole family is thugs … I hope and pray they will not release him.\"
Jimmie Edwards could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Someone who answered the phone at a number listed to one of Edwards' relatives declined to comment. Other relatives could not be immediately reached for comment.
Burrell, who serves as an Imam in the Stillwater prison, has a re-entry plan that involves living with his wife in north Minneapolis or father in Coon Rapids. He has also been offered employment and job training Al Maa'uun, an Islamic faith community in north Minneapolis, according to the report.
Burrell's wife, Lacretia Luckett, said Tuesday she hadn't read the report and did not want to comment.
Burrell's case will be heard before the board of pardons next Tuesday, which will consider whether to release him from prison. It will not consider his exoneration, which is a process that will be initiated next year, Guerrero said.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman maintained his belief in Burrell's guilt, noting Tuesday that Burrell was convicted in two separate trials and that the Minnesota Supreme Court supported the findings.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar was Hennepin County Attorney when Burrell was first convicted by jurors in 2003.
The case became a flash point in her presidential bid earlier this year when the Associated Press published an investigation raising concerns outlined in the report.
Burrell was granted a new trial and was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in a bench trial in 2008 after Freeman took over as Hennepin County Attorney.
Freeman met with the panel for 1 1/2 hours and said he found them \"sincere and honest,\" but that their goal is to overturn convictions.
\" … That's what they do,\" he said. \"What this office has tried to do is reflect the victims …\"
Burrell's attorney, Daniel Guerrero, said he was pleased with the report's findings but was frustrated with Freeman's stance.
\"He can hearken back to past trials all he wants, but he's not reckoning with the truths and the facts,\" Guerrero said. \"I really am grateful and appreciative of the panel's efforts.\"
Guerrero said he has not spoken to Burrell about the report; Thursday is the first opportunity they'll have to discuss it.
Guerrero plans to file a petition next year to overturn Burrell's convictions. Freeman's office will have an opportunity to respond in writing, and a judge will decide whether a hearing is held to hear witness testimony.
Guerrero said if a hearing is held he will call several witnesses to testify, including three women who say they were with Burrell when Edwards was killed.
The findings come almost two weeks after Freeman issued a news release noting that he made an offer to Guerrero to drop Burrell's 15-year prison term for attempting to kill the intended target, Timothy Oliver. Burrell would still have to serve a life term for Edwards' killing. (Freeman said neither he nor a judge could change that term.)
Burrell has served 18 years of the life sentence and is eligible for parole in 12 years.
Guerrero has said that the timing and purpose of Freeman's news release was perplexing, and that Freeman can cut the shorter sentence without his approval. Freeman said Burrell was guilty but deserved reconsideration because he was a minor at the time.
The report took special exception with the jailhouse informants who identified Burrell, an alleged gang member, as the shooter.
The report found that Isaac Hodge, a leader of the Family Mob gang that was rivals to a gang Burrell was allegedly in, played an instrumental role in urging his fellow gang members, including Oliver, and gang affiliates to identify Burrell as the shooter.
Hodge, an \"experienced informant,\" was in jail in 2002 facing possible federal weapons and drug charges when and identified Burrell to police as the suspect, the report said.
\"This overarching situation — in which several serial informants, all members of the same gang, offer similar information about a rival gang member in a high-profile but thinly-evidenced case, all in exchange for vague or even undisclosed benefits — is well-recognized as highly problematic,\" the panel wrote.
According to the report: Six jailhouse informants testified in Burrell's 2008 trial with the expectation or hope of receiving \"benefits\" or deals in their cases, including federal cases.
Some deals were signed after they provided helpful testimony, which also led to incomplete trial records on the deal. The panel recommended further investigation of such deals.
\" … The record does clearly show that the deal being discussed — and, in some cases, that had been offered — were extraordinarily generous,\" the report said.
Informant Terry Arrington received a \"dramatic\" and \"highly unusual\" deal that reduced his federal sentence from 16 years to 3 years.
Arrington recanted his testimony after trial, saying he had testified to shorten his sentence. Informant Dameon Leake had the same motive when he testified; he also later recanted.
Another informant's state sentence was cut in half from a little over 12 years to a little over 6 years.
\"The panel surmises that the truly extraordinary nature of these sentence reductions may reflect the degree of public pressure that authorities were feeling to produce evidence that could support a conviction in this high-profile case,\" the report said.
The panel urged Ellison's office to obtain all state and federal records related to deals struck with the informants and communications with them, as well as their testimony and related files in other cases to vet their credibility.
The report listed several instances where evidence that could have exonerated Burrell was minimized or ignored, among them:
• At Burrell's 2003 trial, Angela Buboltz Williams testified that her boyfriend, Hans Williams, had told her that he and his friend, Ike Tyson, were at the scene and that Tyson was the shooter. She spent part of the day with both men after the shooting and did not hear them implicate Burrell. Williams was so upset she called 911 to report Tyson.
\"She made this call even though it meant alerting police to information that would implicate Hans, who was not only her boyfriend but also the father of her child,\" the report said.
She told the panel in a November interview that Hans Williams had told her at the time that Burrell was not involved.
\"The panel found her statements to be credible,\" the report said. \"Her statements, however, appear to have been discounted — by police, prosecutors, and perhaps even defense counsel at the second trial — in favor of the inculpatory evidence provided by witnesses who received consideration in exchange for their testimony.\"
• Tyson and Hans Williams testified in 2008 that Tyson was the shooter and Burrell was not in the car with them at the time.
\"Those statements were apparently disregarded by police and prosecutors,\" according to the report.
• Two \"utterly disinterested\" witnesses described the shooter consistent with Tyson's height, wardrobe and hairstyle. Tyson is 5-foot-9 and had an Afro during the shooting; he had it braided afterward, which was witnessed by Angela Buboltz Williams. Burrell is 5-foot-3; he is also shorter and heavier than the second suspect the witnesses described.
\"Their claims appear not to have been thoroughly investigated …\"
• Police did not fully investigate Burrell's alibi after he provided inconsistent statements about his whereabouts.
\"During his 2020 interview with the panel, Burrell explained these inconsistent statements by saying that as a teenager, he did not appreciate the importance of providing a complete and accurate alibi until he realized, well into his interrogation, that police suspected him of Tyesha Edwards' murder. Initially, his only thought was to distance himself as far as possible away from the scene, regardless of the truth …\"
Burrell eventually said he was at nearby Cup Foods at the time and told police to check the interior surveillance video and to talk to a woman he was with.
The report said police apparently did not thoroughly review Cup Foods surveillance video or talk to the woman. No video was admitted as evidence and none appeared to have been collected or preserved by police.
\"This appears to constitute a failure to investigate that illustrates tunnel vision,\" the report said. \" … Because a surveillance video of the interior of Cup Foods showing Burrell inside those premises could only disconfirm the operative theory that Myon was engaged in the shooting at the time, a failure to even look for those videos can be understood as an expression of confirmation bias and tunnel vision.\"
• One witness testified that in a jailhouse phone call Burrell confessed that he was at the scene with Tyson and Williams, but there was no record of the call being recorded or logged.
\" … The phone call would have taken place while Burrell was in jail and while all of his calls were, therefore, being recorded,\" the report said. \" … The panel is troubled by this missing evidence, which, if it existed, would be important evidence in determining either guilt or innocence.\"
The panel was organized by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and the Innocence Project. It was chaired by Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and included five other experts from across the country.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708