Amid the Democratic caucus frenzy, a new report has uncovered questions about Amy Klobuchar's record as a prosecutor in Minnesota, showing that she convicted a young man of murder who may now be innocent.
After a year-long investigation into discrepancies in the case, new reports from the Associated Press show that Myon Burrell, a now 33-year-old Black man, may have been wrongfully convicted at the age of 16. At the time, he was tried and sentenced to prison as an adult for shooting 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. Klobuchar, who acted as the D.A. in this case, helped convict Burrell who is currently serving a life sentence in prison. But, it seems that key details may prove that the conviction was premature.
For most of her career and through the duration of her presidential campaign, Amy Klobuchar, formerly a prosecutor in the state of Minnesota, has been respected for her "tough on crime" policies that appeal to middle-ground Democratic voters. According to her, the now-Senator was working against an overwhelming trend of racial discrimination increasing in Minnesota. "There was a 65% decrease in incarceration of African-Americans when you go from the beginning of my term to the end," Klobuchar told CNN last year.
During her 8-year tenure from 1999-2007, Klobuchar worked on shorter jail sentences for low-level offenses, many of which were within Minnesota's black community. But, she also tried longer prison sentences for crimes that sent people to prison. And during 2002-2004, Black youth between the ages of 10-17 reportedly rose significantly in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. During the three year stretch, Black juveniles made up about 2/3 of all juveniles brought to the detention center, according to a Prison Policy report.
This isn't to say that Klobuchar was single-handedly responsible for these statistics. But, in 2002, the Black community was looking for answers and solutions when Tyesha Edwards was killed by a stray bullet shot through her home while she was doing homework at the kitchen table. And this was a case that Klobuchar played a large part in.
In the Associated Press report released last week, new details emerged over Myron Burrell's incarceration. Burrell was convicted and given a life sentence for the killing of Edwards after a swift police investigation that allegedly produced no DNA evidence, no gun, and no fingerprints to tie Burrell to the crime. The case largely revolved around Burrell's "rival" who accounted for his presence at the crime scene in what is now described to be a "coached" testimony.
On top of that, there is no record that Burrell's alibi was ever checked, although the 16-year-old maintained that he was with friends on the day of the shooting. Now, it's come to light that alibis were never questioned for the case and evidence seems to have gone missing, though leaked footage shows the chief homicide detective taking cash for information.
But given the new evidence, Klobuchar's campaign says that the candidate is fully on board with reevaluating this conviction. “Senator Klobuchar has always believed in pursuing justice without fear or favor," her campaign representative told Refinery29. "That’s why she has said that any new evidence in this case should immediately be reviewed by the court.” Hennepin County claims they were fully cooperative with the Associate Press investigation, though the did not comment on the story at the time.
For years, Burrell maintained that he was innocent of this crime, even through his co-defendants confessions. Ike Tyson, who was also convicted for the crime, even said that he was the one who pulled the trigger, stating that Burrell wasn't even at the crime scene. “I’m the one that did this,” Tyson said while serving his 45-year sentence. So how did Burrell end up with a life sentence for murder, and what was Amy Klobuchar's role in his conviction?
Often, Klobuchar has talked about her part in putting Burrell away for life. “Sweet, sweet child just home doing her homework so that they could go to the mall later on," Klobuchar recalled the case in a Washington Post interview. "Gang members shot through her house and killed her at her kitchen table while she was doing her homework. We went after those guys. They went to jail.”
Although the presidential candidate has touted that she put away the killer in a tragic case that took a child's life, Burrell's lawyer told the New York Times just last week that Klobuchar wasn't all that involved in the case. “She stepped back and let [line prosecutors] do what they were doing,” Daniel Guerrero said in the interview.
As the candidate faces scrutiny now for potentially putting away Burrell prematurely, the larger conversation at play is around the racial divide in Hennepin county where Klobuchar was D.A. and Burrell was convicted.
"One thing to understand about Minnesota is that we have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country but some of the country’s largest racial and ethnic disparities. Our state is 80% white, so 20% people of color but our prisons are 48% people of color and the rates are especially high for African-Americans," Perry L. Moriearty, an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School told Refinery29.
According to Moriearty, in terms of racial disparities and arrests, Black juveniles in Minnesota are 6.5x more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. They’re also more than 5 times as likely to be transferred to adult court. She also cited studies on the incarceration of Black youth that explain why young Black people tend to receive harsher sentences than white people in cases like Burrell's. The study ultimately found that officers are more likely to attribute the criminal behavior of minority youth to things like "inadequate moral character and personality" and therefore more likely to use more harsh punishment.
According to statistics gathered by the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating and freeing wrongly convicted people, between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in America are actually innocent. Even if the number were smaller and only 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would still mean at least 20,000 innocent people are currently incarcerated.
Research done by the organization shows that largely unregulated jailhouse informant testimonies like the ones utilized in Burrell’s case are a huge culprit in how many innocent people are imprisoned, failing to provide true justice. Eyewitness misidentification and false confessions, often gained through pressure from investigators, all lead to mass incarceration of truly innocent people. The organization also reports that incorrect eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of a sample of 360 wrongful convictions in the U.S. that were overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.
As stated by the Prison Policy Initiative, only approximately 14% of all young people under 18 in the U.S. are Black, but 42% of boys and 35% of girls incarcerated in juvenile facilities are Black.
“In the case of Myon Burrell — where you had a really high-profile shooting of an innocent girl and you put a lot of pressure on the system to get someone to be responsible for that — I think a lot of corners were probably cut," said Minnesotan public defender Mary Moriarty of Burrell’s wrongful conviction. Moriarty has been a public defender in Hennepin County for almost three decades.
Following reports of the wrongful conviction and Klobuchar’s part in the early days of the case, Black Lives Matter Twin Cities and the Minneapolis NAACP along with other civil rights organizations are calling for Klobuchar to suspend her campaign.
During her presidential run, Kamala Harris, who was also formerly a prosecutor, took serious measures to reevaluate mistakes during her time in criminal justice, making it a large part of her platform. Still, Harris faced immense scrutiny for her time as a prosecutor, and despite her best efforts, it seems Klobuchar may deal with the same.
Currently, Klobuchar is trailing the other Democrat front-runners — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — in the Iowa caucus, which is still awaiting final results as of Wednesday. While civil rights organizations may call on her to take serious action in the wake of Burrell's potential innocence, it will come down to Klobuchar's handing of this to really determine how the candidate could help further a missing investigation. In the meantime, a petition has now been started on Change.org to free Myon Burrell.