Law Clinic Client Freed after 18 Years in Prison
Professor Moriearty and two students attorneys helped Myon Burrell win a commutation of a life sentence that he received for a crime committed when he was 16 years old.
A Minnesota Law professor and two Law School clinic students played key roles in gaining freedom for Myon Burrell, who on Tuesday was granted a commutation of a life sentence he had received as a teen.
Professor of Law Perry Moriearty, student attorney Kaitlyn Falk, 2L, and recent grad/former student attorney Matthew DiTullio ’20, represented Burrell through the Law School’s Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic.
The students worked “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Moriearty, spending hours gathering information, writing and speaking to Burrell, his family and supporters to prepare a petition seeking Burrell’s release for the Minnesota Board of Pardons.
“Matt and Kaitlyn have done fantastic work on behalf of Myon,” Moriearty said of the students’ work on the clinic’s first pardon case. “This is an important and largely untapped area of the criminal legal system in Minnesota, and they played a critical role in developing our arguments, planning the hearing, crafting our legal presentation, and preparing Myon to make his statement to the Board.”
Cheers greeted Burrell as he walked out of the Stillwater Correction Facility Tuesday night after board members Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison voted to commute consecutive sentences that amounted to 41 years before parole eligibility to 20 years during a hearing that was live-streamed via videoconference. Burrell, who had spent 18 years behind bars, will be on supervised release for the rest of his term. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea, the board’s other member, recused herself citing earlier involvement in the case.
Now 34, Burrell was just 16 when he was convicted of killing 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, who died when a stray bullet struck her in November 2002 as she and her younger sister were doing homework at the dining table of their home in Minneapolis. He has maintained his innocence for the past 18 years. Burrell was serving consecutive sentences of mandatory life in prison in Edwards’ death and 186 months for the attempted murder of Timothy Oliver, reportedly the target of eight gunshots fired outside a home near where Edwards lived.
The commutation of Burrell’s sentences came a week after an independent panel of national legal experts released a report recommending his release. The report raised concerns about the integrity of Burrell’s conviction and whether he was involved in Edwards’ shooting. It called for the Minnesota Attorney General’s new Conviction Review Unit to investigate the case, citing questionable evidence including dubious jailhouse informant testimony and eyewitness identification. The panel also reviewed Burrell’s sentences and concluded that his continued incarceration served no further purpose.
Moriearty and the students began representing Burrell in August. The panel reviewing Burrell’s case convened a month earlier after Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined Burrell’s family in calling for an independent investigation. Klobuchar, who served as Hennepin County attorney during Burrell’s 2003 trial, faced a backlash after referring to Burrell’s case during her presidential bid as an example of her tough-on-crime approach. The Associated Press cited Klobuchar’s references to the case in a report in February that raised questions about Burrell’s guilt.
The Human Face Behind the Statistics
Falk, the second year student, traveled with Moriearty to the Stillwater prison to speak to Burrell in person before the coronavirus pandemic ended such meetings. Subsequent interviews with Burrell’s wife, father, stepmother, sister, friends and supporters took place through videoconferences.
Working with Burrell, Falk said, made statistics about racial inequities in the criminal justice system “more meaningful.” Black juveniles are eight time more likely to be prosecuted as adults than white juveniles, she said, while Blacks account for 37 percent of the incarcerated population but only 7 percent of Minnesota’s population.
Falk noted that Burrell’s mother died three weeks after his arrest when her car crashed during a snowstorm as she driving home to Bemidji after visiting him at the Hennepin County Jail.
“I don’t understand how someone could be so resilient and have such a positive attitude,” Falk said. “Mr. Burrell is truly remarkable. We just want him to have an opportunity in the outside world. He deserves it.”
Falk, a Wisconsin native, said her involvement in Burrell’s case has reaffirmed her interest in working criminal justice. “I’m one of those examples of a student who really wanted to start as a prosecutor and then you get cases like this and you kind of get a hunger to be a defense attorney,” Falk said.
DiTullio, also from Wisconsin, is working with the clinic as a paid intern.
“We talked to all of these supporting folks and Myon himself to tell a clear, concise story of why he should be released and the support he will have,” DiTullio said. “It’s clear that regardless of the innocence component, his incarceration is not benefitting anyone, it’s obviously not benefitting him and it’s not benefitting society as a whole.”
DiTullio expects to begin a clerkship with the Alaska Court of Appeals in February before working for the Colorado State Public Defender’s office. The law school’s public service focus and commitment to social justice and racial equity persuaded him to enroll here.
“I went to law school knowing I wanted to be a public defender or work somewhere in the criminal justice realm,” DiTullio said. “I’m especially interested in working with juveniles because there’s so much work to be done in that realm between juveniles not having fully developed brains and feeling like you can have a big impact in a child’s life.”
‘The Man I’ve Become’
At Tuesday’s hearing, Burrell — who had maintained his innocence since his arrest — told Walz and Ellison that he was not trying to minimize the loss of Edwards in seeking his release. Rather, Burrell said, he was seeking the opportunity to be “the man that I’ve become” after pursuing educational and other programming while incarcerated and “the productive member of society that I’d love to be.”
In addition to Burrell’s innocence, the petition that Moriearty and the students prepared cited four additional reasons for a pardon and commutation: the excessiveness of his sentences, his record of institutional adjustment; his dedication to the tenets of his Islamic faith and election as Imam or spiritual leader in prison; and his plan of re-entry, under which he would live with his wife and her children or his father while pursuing work opportunities.
Without a commutation, Moriearty told the board, Burrell would spend a minimum of 41 years in prison and would not be eligible for release until 2043, when he would be 57.
The 1994 law under which he was sentenced “was enacted amid a moral panic in this country about predicted onslaught of adolescent superpredators.” But those predictions were wrong and juvenile sentencing laws have changed as neuroscientists over the last two decades have documented key neurodevelopmental differences between adolescents and adults.
“In a series of four seminal cases — Roper, Graham, Miller and Montgomery — the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles are categorically less culpable than adults, more capable of rehabilitation and therefore constitutionally different for purposes of sentencing,” Moriearty told the board.
The Supreme Court also emphsized the importance of mitigating factors when sentencing a juvenile, including his age, environment and the possibility of rehabilitation.
“That did not happen here,” Moriearty said.
Todd Nelson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.