MINNEAPOLIS — An independent panel of national legal experts will review the conviction of an African American man sentenced as a teenager to life in prison for the murder of a little girl struck by a stray bullet, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the New York-based Innocence Project announced Monday.
Myon Burrell, 34, has spent nearly two decades behind bars. His case captured widespread interest, first at the time of his 2002 arrest, and again this year after Sen. Amy Klobuchar touted it during her run for the U.S. presidency. She used it as an example of how — when top prosecutor in Hennepin County — she helped find justice for the African American community outraged by gun violence and the senseless death of Tyesha Edwards, an 11-year-old Black girl killed while doing homework at her dining-room table.
After the Associated Press and APM Reports highlighted flaws in the investigation that pointed to a possible wrongful conviction, Klobuchar called for a review, saying justice was not only about punishing the guilty but protecting the innocent. She and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office expressed support Monday for the new panel, which hopes to release its findings by the year’s end. The senator has also said she would like to see the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit and a Sentencing Review Board to look into other potentially flawed cases.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and one of the first proponents for Conviction Integrity Units nationwide, called the review of Burrell’s case an important first step.
He and Laura Nirider — co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, who led efforts to identify and select prospective panel members — will act as advisors as the team looks at the evidence that led to Burrell’s conviction and the appropriateness of his sentence.
“A conviction integrity review is a non-adversarial process that seeks cooperation from prosecutors, defenders and police,” said Scheck, who is an expert in best practices in conviction integrity and will help guide the panel. “Best practices today include consideration of excessive sentences as well as a review of guilt or innocence and the fairness of the trial.”
“In the end, CIUs often ask the question after reviewing all the evidence, ‘if we had known all of this at the time we charged the defendant, would we have arrested him in the first place?’”
Nirider, a Minnesota native, who represents innocent juveniles and those widely considered to be wrongfully convicted, including Brendan Dassey, subject of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” said the panel is filled with some of the country’s top legal minds, including a former state attorney general, the leader of one of the first Conviction Integrity Units in the country, and the past president of the national Innocence Network.
The effort, she said, was undertaken with the support of several Minnesota organizations, including the Minneapolis NAACP, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, and the ACLU of Minnesota and panel members.
“The gross miscarriage of justice that happened in Myon Burrell’s case struck a chord with many in the Black community,” said Leslie Redmond President of the Minneapolis NAACP, adding that an independent review of his case is long overdue. “We also know that Myon is one of many young Black men who has been railroaded by the criminal justice system in Hennepin County. There is an urgent need for the establishment of a conviction integrity unit to review those cases now.”
The death of George Floyd — who was killed by police in May at a south Minneapolis corner store just three blocks from where Tyesha was shot — has put a spotlight on Minnesota and its long history of racial injustice.
Many members of the state’s African American community feel the system is stacked against them, from the time of their arrest and charges filed, to the length of their sentences.
The 1990s and 2000s resulted in the highest rate of incarceration ever seen in America, and young Black men were disproportionately affected.
A largely discredited theory about a remorseless, teen criminals — dubbed “superpredators” — resulted in a tripling of the number of youths thrown into adult facilities, thousands of them sentenced to life. The vast majority were African American. While that trend has started to reverse, those already convicted remain in prison where many will likely die.
Perry Moriearty, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the state has long prided itself on having a progressive penal system, but that is not true when it comes to the punishment of young African American males.
“Black juveniles in Minnesota are eight times more likely to be prosecuted as adults than white juveniles, and we subject them to extraordinarily harsh sentences,” she said. “Even as states across the country are abandoning life sentences for adolescents, we continue to permit life without parole or its equivalent. We are on our way to becoming an outlier.”
Burrell, 16 at the time of Tyesha’s killing, has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence saying he was not even at the scene.
A yearlong AP investigation found there was no hard evidence — no gun, fingerprints, DNA — linking him to the crime.
Surveillance tape that Burrell told police would clear him was never pulled from Cup Food, the same store that called the police on George Floyd for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Much of the state’s case relied on jailhouse informants, several of whom have since recanted. And another man has admitted to the shooting, saying Burrell was not even present.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Offices said in a statement Monday it has been cooperating with Burrell’s current attorney for nearly two years and will continue to be responsive to the panel’s advisors.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, she has been advocating for a review for months.
“As I told Mr. Burrell’s family earlier this year, if any injustice was done in the quest for justice for Tyesha Edwards, it must be addressed,” she said in an emailed statement. “This investigation is an important step forward and I fully support the work of this distinguished panel.”
As the Trump administration pushes full steam ahead to force schools to resume in-person education, public health experts warn that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher.
They’re urging a more cautious approach, which many local governments and school districts are already pursuing.
But U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on President Donald Trump’s insistence that kids can safely return to the classroom.
“There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” she told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
Still, health experts say there are too many uncertainties and variables for back-to-school to be back-to-normal.
Where is the virus spreading rapidly? Do students live with aged grandparents? Do teachers have high-risk health conditions that would make online teaching safest? Do infected children easily spread COVID-19 to each other and to adults?
Regarding the latter, some evidence suggests they don’t, but a big government study aims to find better proof. Results won’t be available before the fall, and some schools are slated to reopen in just a few weeks.
“These are complicated issues. You can’t just charge straight ahead,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday during an online briefing.
Children infected with coronavirus are more likely than adults to have mild illnesses, but their risk for severe disease and death isn’t zero. While a virus-linked inflammatory condition is uncommon, most children who develop it require intensive care, and a few have died. Doctors don’t know which children are at risk.
“The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It’s how well we control COVID-19 in the community,” Frieden said. “Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control.”
Zahrah Wattier teaches high school in Galveston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spiking. Until the state recently said schools must reopen to in-person classes, her district had been weighing options many others are considering, including full-time online teaching or a hybrid mix.
Wattier’s school has mostly Hispanic and Black students, many from low-income families; almost 70% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and many have parents who work in “essential” jobs that increase potential exposure to the virus. Online education was hard for many with limited internet access, and Wattier knows in-person classes can help even the playing field.
But she’s worried.
“My school has over 2,000 students. That’s over 2,000 exposures in a day,” said Wattier, whose parents live with the family and are both high-risk. “It’s a lot to think about. It’s my job. It’s something I choose to do, it’s something I love. Now it comes at a really high risk.’’
The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance the Trump administration has cited to support its demands, says the goal is for all students to be physically present in school. But, it adds, districts must be flexible, consult with health authorities and be ready to pivot as virus activity waxes and wanes.
“It is not that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks this is a done deal because we have put out guidance,” said Dr. Nathaniel Beers, a member of the academy’s school health council. “But what we do know is that we need to have a more realistic dialogue about the implications of virtual learning on the future of children. We have left whole swaths of society behind, whether it’s because they have limited access to a computer, or broadband internet,” or because of other challenges that online education can’t address.
DeVos said local school officials are smart enough to know when conditions are not right.
“There’s going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school by school or a case by case basis.”
Following CDC and academy guidelines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff and students except the youngest. Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC recommends 6 feet. Both suggest limiting adults allowed in schools, including parents, and canceling group activities like choir and assemblies. Staggered arrival and dismissal times, outdoor classes, and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.
President Trump has threatened federal funding cuts for districts that don’t fully reopen.
DeVos defended that stance, saying, “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families.”
“If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeVos’ comments “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.”
“They’re messing, the president and his administration are messing with the health of our children,” the California Democrat told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
While most funding typically comes from state and local sources, experts say schools will need more federal funding, not less, to reopen safely. Masks, extra cleaning supplies or janitors, additional classroom space, and mental health support for students and staff traumatized by the pandemic are among potential costs. And with more parents out of work, more children will qualify for federally funded school lunches.
Lynn Morales, 49, teaches 8th grade English at a high-poverty public school in Bloomington, Minnesota, that is considering several options including in-person classes; a final decision is expected Aug. 1.
Some colleagues are considering not returning to the classroom because their children’s day care centers aren’t reopening. Some say they won’t come back until there’s a vaccine.
“I am concerned and it’s because of the age group,” Morales said. ‘’Middle school students ... are lovely and I love them, but they touch, they get close, they roughhouse. It is their nature. They’re 13 years old. They are defiant.”
“If masks are required and a kid isn’t wearing a mask, is my job description going to be to chase down this kid and insist they wear a mask? And what if they don’t?’’
Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago infectious disease specialist, is helping the university and a campus preK-12 school decide how to reopen safely.
“Things are evolving from, ‘We can’t do it unless it’s perfectly safe’ to more of a harm reduction model, with the caveat that you can always step back” if virus activity flares, Landon said.
Single-occupancy dorms, outdoor classes, socially distanced classrooms and mask-wearing by students and faculty are on tap for the university. Face coverings will be required at the school too. Policies may change depending on virus activity.
She dismisses complaints from some parents who say masks are a loss of personal freedom.
“It’s not harmful for your child,” she said. “If you see wearing masks as a loss of personal freedom, then you have to think the same of pants.”
Dr. Tina Hartert of Vanderbilt University is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study to determine what role children play in transmitting COVID-19. Almost 2,000 families are enrolled and self-test every two weeks. The idea is to find infected children without symptoms and see how easily disease spreads within families. Results may come by year’s end.
“If we don’t see significant transmission within households, that would be very reassuring,” Hartert said.
She noted that in other countries where schools have reopened, evidence suggests no widespread transmission from children.
In France, public schools reopened briefly before a summer break, with no sign of widespread virus transmission. Masks were only required for upper grades, but students stayed in the same classroom all day. A better test will be when the new school year starts Sept. 1.
In Norway, schools closed in March for several weeks. Nursery schools reopened first, then other grades. Children were put in smaller groups that stay together all day. Masks aren’t required. There have been only a few virus cases, said Dr. Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, but she noted virus activity is much lower than in the U.S.
Kati Spaniak, a realtor in Northbrook, Illinois, says her five teenage daughters have struggled to cope with pandemic fears, school closures and deficits of online learning. She strongly supports getting kids back in the classroom, and all her girls will return to some form of that in the fall.
It’s been hard for her high school senior, Kylie Ciesla. Prom, graduation and other senior rituals were canceled, and there were no good-byes. “Just to get ripped away from everything I’ve worked for 12 years, it’s really hard,” Kylie said.
At college, classes will be in person, masks mandated and a COVID-19 test required before she can move into her dorm. Kylie isn’t sure all that is needed.
“I hate that this thing has become so political. I just want the science. I want to know what we need to do to fix it,” she said.
AP reporters John Leicester and Arno Pedram in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
This story was first published on July 12, 2020. It was updated on July 13, 2020, to correct the name of the member of the American Academy of Pediatrics school health council. He is Dr. Nathaniel Beers, not Dr. Nicholas Beers.
Ben Franklin said it: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, if you’re among us on the green side of the sod, today’s the day to pay up.
I guess a grim pundit might suggest that COVID gave us both an extra 90 days and a novel means to exercise our singular levy-defying option. But it’s mid-July and the heat’s on. The day of reckoning has arrived and I reckon, as usual, the most of us — not being billionaires — will pay up.
As if we had a choice. For any of us drawing a paycheck, Uncle Sam has already taken what he claims as his due. Filing a 1040 is just our way of trying to get a bit of it back.
The scheme behind paying income tax is a lot like running a big sale at a discount merchant.
We’re charged full price, then have to send in a form to get a refund for what we were overcharged. Fail to do the paperwork and Uncle Sam gets your money, regardless … and if you’re dead, well, the IRS does Ben Franklin one better.
Thinking of taxes at this time of year sort of picks an old scab for me. It was right about now, better than a half century past, that I first made personal acquaintance with the Internal Revenue Service.
Now I was already several summers past the age when father, family and folks in general felt a healthy young fellow ought to wile away time out of school sleeping late, horsing around and generally enjoying three months of youthful indolence — not when there were rocks to pick, beans to hoe, buttonweed to pull, hay to bale and lots of farms and farmers looking for cheap, unskilled labor.
If I wasn’t being indentured to family friends and relatives, Mom had three-quarters of an acre to be planted, hoed, harvested and put in the freezer … and she knew where I lived.
Now the pay for these labors was, let us say, meager and irregular at best, and with no recourse to OSHA or a Fair Labor Standards Board to arbitrate the hours pulling, scrubbing and blanching Mom’s carrot crop, once I was old enough to convincingly lie about my age, I went looking for other employment. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t find it.
Gengler’s peas were ready and Leo was hiring. He peered down from a high stool, asked my age, and after I told him what he wanted to hear, I was told to be there the next morning. I’d be pulling down better than a buck an hour and there’d be a roof between the top of my head and the sun. My career was launched.
I spent the next week picking stones, twigs, cockleburs and June bugs out of a shallow river of shelled peas slowly moving along a conveyor enroute to being blanched, cooled, packed and frozen.
I learned to keep an eye out for Annabelle’s cigarette ash if she knocked it off making a long reach for a nearly overlooked pebble and made sure to always look busy when Red, the foreman, shuffled through looking for slackers to haul out to the farm to stack vines. As jobs go, it wasn’t all bad.
At quitting time at the end of the week, Leo made his way through the plant, distributing long window envelopes with pale green checks inside.
I made it as far as the shade of the first tree down the block before ripping open the envelope, knowing down to the last penny what would be printed on that check and exactly what my plans were for every penny of it.
The howl scared the squirrels and sent the sparrows flying from their roosts. State tax, federal tax, FICA — all week I’d been working and all week I’d been robbed.
Or so I felt.
Somewhere, old Ben Franklin was having a good chuckle.
The Winona County Jail has seen success with limiting the coronavirus from spreading within its facility so far, with no cases confirmed within its walls.
Protocols in place have included the limiting of visitors and fingerprinting, along with the limiting of group activities in the jail.
Karin Sonneman, Winona County attorney, did express that the decision to release people from the jail at the start of the pandemic who met certain requirements has helped limit the population in the jail, allowing for the limiting of possible virus spreading.
Sonneman said this release was needed because of the current jail building that does not allow for much flexibility. She said this will have be considered when building a new jail, in case another pandemic occurs.
She said that the decision was made in the hopes of limiting spread like what has happened in congregate care facilities across the country – including locally at Sauer Health Care, which resulted in at least 14 deaths of residents.
Winona County Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller said that these extra precautions have slowed down some of the tasks that the law enforcement staff usually do, though, because staff is limited to help protect them from being exposed to the virus.
Core responsibilities have been the focus for law enforcement officers during the pandemic.
Area law enforcement that have experienced positive COVID-19 cases in their facilities include Trempealeau County and Red Wing County.
Three new COVID-19 cases were confirmed Tuesday in Winona County by the Minnesota Department of Health, raising the total to 153.
No information specifically about these new cases was released.
No new COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed in the county since April, leaving the total at 15.
In Minnesota, 403 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed Wednesday, raising the total to 43,170 with 37,749 no longer needing to be isolated.
In total for the state, 777,614 COVID-19 tests have been completed.
Six new deaths were reported in the state, bringing the total to 1,510.
Statewide, 4,452 people have required hospitalization because of COVID-19, with 236 remaining in hospitals Thursday.
For daily Minnesota COVID-19 situation updates, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.
A 16-year-old boy was injured in Ettrick Monday when he lost control of his vehicle and rolled over.
He was driving on Rogness Coulee Road near Emery Lane when he lost control of his vehicle, over-corrected and crossed the roadway into an opposite ditch, where he struck a bridge and rolled over into a nearby creek, according to the Trempealeau County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office said the driver was pinned in his vehicle and needed to be extricated.
The boy was subsequently flown to Gundersen Health System.
The extent of injuries was unknown, according to the sheriff’s office.