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Myon Burrell left a Minnesota state prison a free man on Tuesday after spending nearly two decades behind bars after a prison board voted to immediately commute his life sentence.
A crowd gathered outside the prison chanted “Myon's free! Myon's free!,” the Star Tribune reported, as the 34-year-old exited the complex.
"I can't express my gratitude for all my supporters," Burrell said, addressing the crowd. "We're fighting for justice. There's too much injustice going on."
Burrell had sobbed via teleconference as he watched the Minnesota Board of Pardons affirm the vote.
"This was the best feeling I ever had," said his 19-year-old son, Myon Burrell Jr., who was a baby when his father was imprisoned. "I've been waiting for that my whole life since I was one year old. Now that he's out, he ain't never going back!"
Burrell was jailed at 16 following the 2002 shooting death of sixth-grader Tyesha Edwards, who was struck in the heart by a stray bullet while doing homework at her kitchen table, according to the Associated Press.
Attorney General Keith Ellison responded to Burrell’s release, noting he spoke with the Edwards’s stepfather.
“This is a horrible tragedy that happened to their daughter, and that nothing that happened here today diminishes that tragedy, and that we will never forget Tyesha," he said.
The news was celebrated by civil rights groups and social activists across the country who had been calling for the wrongly convicted man’s release for months.
"It's a new day in America," Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the newspaper. "The people will no longer be silent about injustice."
Despite zero hard evidence — including a lack of fingerprints, DNA evidence, or murder weapon tying him to the crime — Burrell was sentenced to life in prison in Edwards death in 2002.
Earlier this year, however, an investigation by the Associated Press and American Public Media revealed a lack of evidence and a series of missteps by investigators in Burrell’s case. Specifically, one of Burrell’s co-defendants, Isaiah Tyson, claimed that he was the shooter.
The bombshell news report, which ultimately led to the formation of an independent national legal panel to review the case, sparked protests nationwide.
“The extensive work of this outstanding legal panel supports the immediate release of Myon Burrell,” Nekima Levy Armstrong of the Minneapolis-based Racial Justice Network told the Associated Press. “[It] represents everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system and the ease with which an innocent person can be convicted.”
In the weeks and months that followed, other prominent groups, including the ACLU, began to demand Burrell’s release.
“Myon Burrell has spent his entire adult life behind bars for a crime it appears he likely did not commit, and that’s a gross miscarriage of justice,” ACLU-MN Executive Director John Gordon previously said. “Not only was there no physical evidence tying him to the scene, the AP investigation shows officials made no real attempt to investigate Burrell’s alibi or to listen to co-defendants who said Burrell wasn’t even there."
Senator Amy Klobuchar’s brief presidential bid revived interest in the case. Klobuchar, who was the top county prosecutor when Burrell was convicted, repeatedly invoked his sentence on the campaign trail to reinforce her tough-on-crime stance. Shortly before dropping out of the presidential race, she canceled a Minnesota rally after protesters crashed the event. The senator has now said that the board’s decision was correct.
"This was the right and just decision, and I thank the Pardon Board for their work," Klobuchar said in a statement following Burrell’s release, the Star Tribune reported. "Along with others, I had asked for the independent investigation of this case, and as I said when the report was first released, the sentence deserved immediate review. That happened today."
Prosecutors who had repeatedly cast doubt on Burrell’s innocence were previously reluctant to reopen the case, despite mounting public pressure.
“We believe the right man was convicted in this heinous crime,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a YouTube video uploaded in February. “However, as we have said before, if new evidence is submitted to us, we will gladly review it.”
Edwards’ biological father, Jimmie Edwards, was also convinced Burrell would remain in prison. He reportedly painted Burrell as a cold-blooded criminal in testimony he gave the independent panel reviewing the case.
“If you do the crime, you do the time,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “The guy is a thug, and his whole family is thugs… he should have had his ass in school. I hope and pray they will not release him.”
Meanwhile, Burrell, who obtained his GED and mentored youth while imprisoned, said he plans to use his newfound freedom to be a positive role model in his community.
"I'm just asking you guys for the opportunity to go home and contribute to society," he told the pardons board prior to his release. "I believe I have a whole lot to offer, and if you give me the opportunity, I'll do so.
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