by David Lamb
After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020 spurred renewed interest in issues of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, the questions began. Perhaps because of her high profile as a contender at the time to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, some zeroed in on the work of Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had previously served as the Hennepin County attorney and declined to prosecute the officer accused of murdering Floyd. Within weeks, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that Senator Klobuchar had received more money from police union PACs than all but one of her peers in the senate, and legal activists launched inquiries into the cases she prosecuted.
The one that drew the most attention involved Myon Burrell, convicted at the age of sixteen of murdering eleven-year-old Minneapolis resident Tyesha Edwards. For eighteen years, Burrell waited in prison, insisting he was innocent. Suddenly, with new interest in police misconduct, activists took up his cause. After an Associated Press report questioned the validity of evidence used to convict Burrell, the Center for Wrongful Convictions and the Innocence Project convened a panel of legal experts to conduct a “conviction integrity” review, supported by the Minneapolis NAACP and the ACLU of Minnesota, among other organizations. The office of the Hennepin County attorney responded by defending Burrell’s conviction, saying, “This case is being politicized…” and insisting that “[t]he evidence is quite strong.” But Senator Klobuchar backed the effort for a review.
Professor Mark Osler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who runs the clemency clinic at the University of St. Thomas’ law school, played a leading role in it. Selected as one of six legal experts from across the country to comprise the panel, Osler worked with his students to evaluate the case, new evidence recently brought to light and reforms in the criminal justice system since Burrell’s conviction. Osler described it as exactly the kind of work his clemency clinic focuses on. “These are people [in prison] for whom the world knows about one day of their life,” Osler told the Community Reporter. “Our job is to tell the rest of the story—what happened before that, and what happened after…Burrell’s case was a great opportunity for students to make a difference.”
The panel determined that Burrell’s sentence had, in Osler’s words, “fulfilled any legitimate purpose it may have had.” While it did not aim to draw clear conclusions about guilt or innocence, it uncovered what Osler called convincing evidence of jail calls indicating that people involved in the crime knew that Burrell wasn’t there. On December 8, it concluded, recommending Burrell’s release. Eight days later, the Minnesota Board of Pardons commuted Burrell’s sentence to 20 years, his remaining two years to be served on supervised release.
Osler characterized the panel’s recommendation as something of a warning shot to weak prosecutions. Asked whether he believed its findings suggested a need to review other cases prosecuted by the Hennepin County attorney’s office, he said, “There are weak cases from every prosecutor’s office. Some have been more problematic than others, but the problems that we talk about—the tunnel vision, the use of jailhouse informants—are across the board.”