For nearly two decades, Myon Burrell had nothing but time.
Locked up for life at 16 for a high-profile murder he swore he had nothing to do with, he was stuck in a tiny cell without even a window to watch the seasons change. The years dragged on slowly, and he saw the bodies of once-robust men age and decay.
Still, he couldn’t help wishing that the outside world would slow down. In the Stillwater prison visiting room and in family photographs, his own son seemed to grow overnight from toddler to teen to man.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, everything changed. In the wake of an investigation by The Associated Press and APM Reports that raised grave doubts about his conviction, the Minnesota Board of Pardons said Burrell could go home.
With no opportunity for real goodbyes, men in his unit rattled their bars or reached out their hands, wishing him well as he passed. Within hours, he walked out the prison’s front door into the frigid air, relatives and supporters swarming around him and chanting “Myon’s free! Myon’s free!”
“It was so surreal. … Every step that I took, it was just like bricks, just bricks and bricks and bricks, just being removed from my shoulders,” said Burrell, now 34, in his first interview from home. “Everything just being lifted off me. I was like, finally.”
His release came after years of legal wrangling. Tens of thousands of dollars had been spent to hire a series of lawyers to clear Burrell’s name for the 2002 killing of Tyesha Edwards, a sixth-grader hit by a stray bullet while studying inside her family’s south Minneapolis home.
Burrell’s break finally came this year, when the AP uncovered new evidence and serious flaws in the police investigation. Among them: a failure to collect a corner store’s surveillance video, which Burrell said could have cleared him, and heavy reliance on six jailhouse informants who benefited generously from testifying. One said his time was cut from 16 years to three.
The pressure that followed from the NAACP, the ACLU, and community organizers led to the creation of an independent panel of legal experts, which confirmed many of the AP’s findings and said police appeared to have suffered from “tunnel vision” while pursuing Burrell. It recommended that he be freed immediately.
But Burrell never dreamed that within a week of that report’s release he’d be in his living room, meeting nieces and nephews for the first time. Friends and family filed in for hours. They hugged and gave him presents ranging from Air Jordan 4 Retro basketball shoes to a telescope — he had been longing to see the stars and the moon in the dark, open sky.
Burrell now has a job lined up, along with a wife and supportive family ready to help with his transition to freedom. He’s struggling to process the sudden switch to life on the outside, but finding joy in the smallest of things like opening the refrigerator even when he’s not hungry and the simple luxury of having a bathroom door.
He’s savored a real egg roll, he told friends, not the improvised version made in prison with tortillas, summer sausage, and Thai noodles.
But Burrell said he would not forget those he left behind in prison. Many, he said, were like him — Black kids swept up in an era of harsh policing and sentencing.
With no idea how to navigate the criminal justice system, he said, many were easily convinced by defense attorneys to sign plea deals even when they weren’t guilty. Some teens from his neighborhood signed away 20, 30, or even 40 years of their lives when told they otherwise risked never seeing the outside of a cell again.
When announcing Burrell’s commutation, Gov. Tim Walz pointed to scientific studies and the U.S. Supreme Court, which have both stressed that teenage brains work differently than those of adults and that most young offenders should not be given extreme prison sentences. Walz said the shameful state of juvenile criminal justice in Minnesota “needs to be reformed.”
“We can’t shackle our children in 2020 and expect them to understand and live in a society with respect to decency,” he said during the pardons board hearing. “We need to make compassion and redemption part of our criminal justice system.”
Burrell’s sentence was commuted to 20 years, but he was not pardoned. He is serving the rest of his time, about two years, under supervised release requiring him to wear an ankle bracelet.
He intends to keep fighting for full exoneration in court.
Burrell said his conversion to Islam helped him cope, and he went on to become a religious leader while behind bars. He said he prayed every day for Tyesha and her family and will continue to do so, knowing that whatever he suffered, nothing can compare to losing a child.
Several members of the little girl’s family, however, said they were upset to see Burrell free, and that the media fanfare felt like a slap in the face. Tyesha’s brother, Jimmie Edwards III, said he doesn’t believe Burrell is innocent, in part because he never tried to reach out to the family after her death.
“If I was convicted of doing something I didn’t do, the first thing I would do was contact the family,” he said by telephone. “I would try to make amends with the family (and) I would do everything in my power to let them know that I was innocent.”
He was also angry that Sen. Amy Klobuchar had not contacted them about Burrell’s commutation.
Tyesha’s death and the swift arrest of Burrell and two co-defendants have been touted repeatedly by Klobuchar — the city’s top prosecutor at the time of the crime — as an example of finding justice for victims of gangs and gun violence. The girl’s grieving parents appeared in campaign ads during Klobuchar’s successful run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. And Burrell was mentioned, again, on the Democratic debate stage during her presidential bid last year.
But there was no hard evidence — no gun, DNA, or fingerprints — tying Burrell to the shooting. And the AP found that officers relied heavily on a single eyewitness, who offered conflicting accounts. Another man has said repeatedly over the years that he, not Burrell, was in fact the shooter.
After the AP’s story, Klobuchar called for a review of the case and pushed for the creation of a conviction integrity unit — which recently got federal funding. She said protecting the innocent is just as important as punishing the guilty.
As for Burrell, he can’t help thinking about how much of his life is already gone, but said he realized something while lying in bed his first night home: His time in prison wasn’t wasted. It shaped who he is today and prepared him for what comes next. Time, he vows, he will use to help others.
“I want to be an example,” he said. “I want to go from being a poster child of this monster to being a poster child of being a righteous, productive member of society.”
Associated Press reporter Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.