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December 8, 2020

Expert panel reviewing conviction and sentence urges prison release in high-profile Minnesota homicide case

As reported in this new AP piece, headlined "Expert panel recommends releasing Myon Burrell from prison, more investigation," a notable expert panel that was convened to examine both the conviction and sentence in a high-profile Minnesota case released its report today. Here are the basics from the press report:

A panel of national experts who reviewed Myon Burrell’s conviction for the fatal shooting of a child in Minneapolis recommended that 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.

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 at Al Maa’uun, an Islamic faith community in north Minneapolis, according to the report.

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.”...

Edwards’ 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.” Most of Edwards’ family members declined to speak with the panel.

The findings come almost two weeks after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman issued a news release noting that he made an offer to Burrell’s attorney 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. Burrell’s attorney, Daniel 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. “We certainly could not agree to an arrangement where we agree that he’s guilty and [say] ‘Thank you for reducing his sentence,’ ” Guerrero said at the time.

Burrell’s case became a flash point in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential bid earlier this year when the Associated Press published an investigation raising concerns outlined in the report.  Klobuchar was Hennepin County Attorney when Burrell was first convicted by jurors in 2003.  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....

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 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.

The full 60-page "Report Of The Independent Panel To Examine The Conviction And Sentence Of Myon Burrell" is available at this link and it makes for an interesting and impressive read.

December 8, 2020 at 06:39 PM | Permalink

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