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Explaining Amy Klobuchar’s role in the newly investigated conviction of Myon Burrell

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a town hall on Feb. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP/Semansky) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a town hall on Feb. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP/Semansky)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a town hall on Feb. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP/Semansky)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy February 24, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • When Klobuchar was a county attorney in Minnesota, her office led the prosecution of three men, including Myon Burrell, after a young black girl was killed by a stray bullet.

  • A year-long Associated Press investigation casts doubts on the case against Burrell, who’s serving a lifetime prison sentence but says he was wrongfully convicted.

  • The Hennepin County attorney’s office disputes many of the report’s findings. Klobuchar was not a trial attorney for the case but has called for it to be reviewed.

During the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, MSNBC anchor Chuck Todd grilled Sen. Amy Klobuchar on her record as a county prosecutor, asking why minority voters should forgive her for her office’s role in the controversial conviction of a black teenager.

"You did prosecute a black teenager who was sentenced to life in prison, despite what are now serious doubts about the evidence," Todd said.

The case involving then-teenager Myon Burrell has faced heightened scrutiny following a year-long Associated Press investigation that raised questions about Burrell’s conviction.

The investigation concluded that Burrell’s investigators relied on flawed evidence and failed to chase down leads that could have exonerated Burrell of charges that he fired the stray bullet that killed an 11-year-old girl, Tyesha Edwards, at her dining room table in 2002.

In response to Todd’s question, Klobuchar defended her career as the Hennepin County attorney and called for a review of the case based on the AP’s findings.

"I think it's very important that that evidence come forward," she said.

The answer marked a shift in tone for the Minnesota senator, who previously heralded the case as proof of her commitment to justice for African Americans devastated by gun violence. 

Klobuchar highlighted the victim’s story in TV ads aired during her Senate campaigns, and she’s also cited it in interviews and speeches during her ongoing bid for the presidency.

On stage in September for the Democratic debate in Houston, she said she was "proud" of her record seeking justice for African Americans, including the "little girl named Tyesha Edwards, who was doing her homework at her kitchen table and was shot through the window."

Although Burrell, now 33, was convicted twice, he has maintained his innocence, filed several appeals and rejected all plea deals, arguing that he wasn’t even at the scene of the shooting.

More than 17 years later, the AP’s investigation revealed that the case against him may have been flawed, and the Hennepin County attorney’s office is standing by its conviction.

Here, without weighing in on which side is right, we provide the facts.

What the AP investigation found

Klobuchar served as Hennepin County’s attorney from 1999 through 2006, meaning she supervised Burrell’s original jury trial, conviction and sentencing in 2003. 

In 2005, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Burrell’s conviction over a Miranda-rights violation and other errors. By the time Burrell’s case was revisited in the form of a bench trial, Klobuchar had moved to the Senate, leaving the retrial to her successor, Michael Freeman.

In both trials, Burrell was convicted along with co-defendants Hans Williams and Ike Tyson of murdering Edwards while shooting at Timothy Oliver, a rival gang member. 

Tyson now insists that he pulled the trigger, shooting from behind a 5-foot wall roughly 120 feet away with the intention of scaring Oliver, according to the AP’s report. 

But other evidence led prosecutors to Burrell. At one point, Oliver said Burrell was the shooter. (Read the findings of fact in Burrell’s second trial in the spring of 2008.) 

The AP reviewed more than a thousand pages of court documents, police records and interrogation videos. Its reporters interviewed dozens of witnesses, inmates, family members, ex-gang members, attorneys and criminal justice experts.

Their report said that Oliver, who died shortly before Burrell’s second trial, had contradicted himself when describing what he saw during the night in question.

The report also pinpointed potentially exonerating evidence that it said investigators did not fully pursue, including surveillance video footage from the convenience store Burrell claimed he was in at the time of the shooting, as well testimony from the people Burrell claimed he was with. 

Prosecutors did not recover the gun or gather fingerprint or DNA evidence, the report said.

Finally, the report accused Burrell’s prosecutors of building a case in the second trial that was overly dependent on jailhouse informants, some of whom have recanted, who were shown on tape being offered cash and sentence reductions in exchange for hearsay information.

One informant, Terry Arrington, told the AP that "everybody told a lie to get time cut."

What Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney’s office said

We asked Klobuchar’s campaign if she believes the case was correctly prosecuted and if she disputes any details of the AP’s report. The campaign did not directly answer those questions.

In a statement to PolitiFact, Klobuchar said the case should be reviewed "immediately."

"If any evidence was not put forward or was not appropriately investigated, or if new evidence has emerged that should have been discovered at the time, it must be reviewed," she said.

Freeman, the current Hennepin County attorney, said in a statement that his office has been cooperating with Burrell’s lawyers and remains open to reviewing new evidence. But he also said the bulk of the evidence identified in the AP’s report was not new.

"We pretty much dispute everything in the AP story," office spokesman Chuck Laszewski said.

Freeman’s statement addressed several of the AP investigation’s findings, including the idea that Burrell could have been cleared by surveillance footage from the convenience store.

Freeman said Burrell offered conflicting stories about where he was at the time of the shooting and that the people who claim to have been with him at the store "never came forward."

He said Burrell’s conviction hinged on Oliver’s testimony, earlier testimony from Williams and Tyson, and testimony from two people who said Burrell confessed to them privately. 

Freeman also said it’s common for investigators to offer cash rewards and for prosecutors to secure convictions without fingerprint or DNA evidence.

Daniel Guerrero, an attorney for Burrell since 2017, said Burrell’s legal team is moving forward in their attempts to free him. 

"There is really nothing definitive I have reviewed in either the investigation or prosecution of this case that leads me to believe Myon is guilty," Guerrero said.

What was Klobuchar’s role?

In an interview with "Fox News Sunday" after the AP investigation published, Klobuchar told host Chris Wallace that she "didn’t know about this new evidence until I saw the report."

But the AP reported that Klobuchar’s office would have been aware of a number of the problems with Burrell’s prosecution, including:

  • That Oliver gave conflicting accounts of what he saw.

  • That investigators did not get testimony from the people Burrell said he was with.

  • That investigators did not seek the surveillance tape from the convenience store.

  • That no gun, fingerprint or DNA evidence incriminated Burrell.

  • That video shows an investigator offering cash for hearsay information.

  • That Williams and Tyson have said Burrell was not with them during the shooting.

  • That investigators did not follow up after Williams identified a different man, Tyree Jackson, by name and in a photo lineup as the third person involved in the shooting.

The Hennepin County attorney’s office noted that Klobuchar was "not the trial attorney" during the first trial and said the conviction at the second trial was obtained "with no input from her."

That doesn’t necessarily clear her from responsibility, Guerrero said.

"There were two lead attorneys who prosecuted the case, but obviously as their boss, she ultimately bears responsibility for the actions of her line prosecutors," Guerrero said.

What backlash is Klobuchar facing?

In the weeks since the AP’s investigation came out, Klobuchar has faced calls to suspend her presidential campaign from civil rights activists and community leaders in Minneapolis. 

The president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP said Klobuchar has "questions that need to be answered," while the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota called Burrell’s conviction "a gross miscarriage of justice."

Media figures have also pressed Klobuchar on the issue. Before Todd prodded her in Las Vegas, former federal prosecutor Sunny Hostin, a co-host of ABC’s "The View," blasted her office’s prosecution of Burrell.

"I’ve reviewed the facts of that case, and it is one of the most flawed investigations and prosecutions that I think I have ever seen," Hostin said.

Burrell’s trial jury has spoken out, too. Joe McLean, the jury foreman for Burrell’s first trial, told the AP he regrets voting to convict and feels "that we were misled."

Paul Fedor, the last juror to decide on a guilty verdict, told the AP that he was bothered during the trial by the notion that Burrell, at 5’3" tall, could have visibly fired a gun over a 5-foot wall.

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Our Sources

NBC News, "Full transcript: Ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas," Feb. 20, 2020 

NBC New York on YouTube, "Everything Sen. Amy Klobuchar Said at the Las Vegas Democratic Debate | NBC New York," Feb. 20, 2020

The New York Times, "Amy Klobuchar Is Pressed on ‘The View’ Over Her Record as a Prosecutor," Feb. 11, 2020

ABC News Politics on Twitter, Feb. 11, 2020

ACLU Minnesota, "ACLU of Minnesota Calls for Immediate Investigation into the Case Against Myon Burrell, Following Strong New Evidence of His Innocence," Feb. 7, 2020

The Associated Press, "ACLU criticizes conviction of black Minnesota teen," Feb. 7, 2020

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, "ACLU calls for reopening 2003 murder case prosecuted by Sen. Klobuchar," Feb. 7, 2020

The Associated Press, "Klobuchar’s claims about black teen’s case draw criticism," Feb. 3, 2020

Fox News on YouTube, "Chris Wallace challenges Amy Klobuchar on controversial prosecution," Feb. 2, 2020

The Associated Press, "Amy Klobuchar helped jail teen for life, but case was flawed," Feb. 1, 2020

The Associated Press, "Jury foreman regrets convicting teen in girl’s 2002 death," Jan. 31, 2020

The New York Times, "Klobuchar Faces Uproar Over Her Role in Black Teenager’s Murder Conviction," Jan. 31, 2020

The Associated Press, "Stepfather of slain girl fears teen was wrongfully convicted," Jan. 29, 2020

The Hill, "Minneapolis NAACP, Black Lives Matter call on Klobuchar to suspend campaign," Jan. 29, 2020

KARE11, "RAW: Minneapolis NAACP president responds to AP investigation into Myon Burrell case," Jan. 29, 2020

The Associated Press on YouTube, "A detective offers cash for any names of suspects," Jan. 28, 2020

The Associated Press on YouTube, "AP probe raises doubts about murder conviction," Jan. 28, 2020

The Associated Press, "In Klobuchar’s past, questions about a teen jailed for life," Jan. 28, 2020

The Washington Post, "Transcript: The 2020 Candidates: Sen. Amy Klobuchar," Oct. 24, 2019

The Washington Post, "Transcript: The third Democratic debate," Sept. 12, 2019

Amy Klobuchar on YouTube, "Senator Klobuchar Speaks About Gun Violence in Columbia," Aug. 16, 2019

Supreme Court of Minnesota via Justia, Opinion, "Myon Demarlo Burrell, Appellant, vs. State of Minnesota, Respondent," Feb. 4, 2015.

Supreme Court of Minnesota via CourtListener, Opinion, "State of Minnesota, Respondent, v. Myon Demarlo Burrell, Appellant," May 19, 2005

Email interview with Daniel Guerrero, attorney at Meshbesher & Spence, Ltd, Feb. 22, 2020

Email interview with Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office, Feb. 24, 2020

Statement from Michael Freeman, Hennepin County attorney, Feb. 24, 2020

Statement from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Feb. 24, 2020

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Explaining Amy Klobuchar’s role in the newly investigated conviction of Myon Burrell