Imprisoned for life as a teen, Myon Burrell finds his voice
When he was just a teenager, Myon Burrell lost his identity, his voice and even his name.
For much of the past 17 years, he has been trying to understand how it all happened. He walked into a police interrogation room, not knowing why he was there. By the time he left, the state of Minnesota had turned him into a number — inmate 211839.
Sentenced to life after a young black girl was killed by a stray bullet, Burrell's story has been told — and told again — by Sen. Amy Klobuchar while trumpeting her tough-on-crime record as a top Minneapolis prosecutor. But a yearlong Associated Press investigation discovered major flaws and inconsistencies in the case, raising questions about whether the 16-year-old shooting suspect may have been wrongly convicted.
On Sunday, Klobuchar cancelled a presidential rally in her home state two days before the Democratic primary election there after dozens of protesters waved signs and shouted "Free Myon!" Less than 24 hours later, she dropped out of the presidential race, saying she was throwing her support behind former Vice President Joe Biden.
Klobuchar, who has brought up the little girl as an example of her commitment to racial justice, has faced regular grilling by the African American community and the national media since the AP in January published its story about Burrell, who also is black. During the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, she repeated a well-worn statement that she has called for a review of Burrell's case, which weighed heavily on a single eyewitness, who gave conflicting accounts about the shooter. But her successor at the county attorney's office, Mike Freeman, doubled down last week, releasing a statement expressing confidence they got the right guy.
"We believe the right man was convicted in this heinous crime," Freeman said in a video statement posted to YouTube last month. "However, as we have said before, if new evidence is submitted to us, we will gladly review it."
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Burrell, meanwhile, has watched everything unfold from his prison cell. He has never spent a day of his adult life outside those walls, and he said what matters most is that his side of the story is finally being told — and heard. Though he still clings to hope he will one day go free, those dreams are muted by his deep mistrust of a system he believes failed him from the start.
"Being a kid, being in such a dark place, it was like, 'How am I even going to cope with being here for even a year … I've never even really been away from home,'" he said during a prison interview. "You lock a kid up and say, 'This is your cell, this is where you're going to die at, get comfortable' … especially for a crime that you didn't commit. It's a real hopeless feeling."
Now almost 34, Burrell is one of more than 1,600 inmates at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater, living in cells stacked on top of one another, four and five tiers high. From the beginning, every minute of the day has been a challenge. But over time, he's found ways to cope. Besides his faith, family and the bonds he's formed with fellow juvenile lifers, he said one of the biggest things that has kept him grounded has been his quest for the truth to come out.
Sitting at a desk in his small, tidy cell, he has spent much of his free time over the years sifting through stacks of papers — police records, court transcripts and statements from witnesses or jailhouse informants — taking breaks and pacing the floor while trying to digest the incomprehensible inconsistencies. When frustrated or angry, he says, he'd lie on his cot and cover his face with his hands, waiting to regain his composure so he could dig back in.
Initially, Burrell says, he thought what happened to him was a mistake. But over time, he has come to believe he was railroaded by police and used by politicians to curry favor with voters enraged over violence in their neighborhood. He says the media blindly fanned the flames, painting him out to be a monster.
"I slipped into a dark place," he said, recalling his first day in prison and the realization that from that moment it didn't matter to the world if he was guilty or innocent. "I had to accept the fact that life as I knew it was over. I was no longer going to be viewed as a human being but a number."
Burrell's story begins in a poor south Minneapolis neighborhood filled with drugs and gunfire. Life was hard, and there was no escape: Every time he looked at his mother, he was reminded of it. She survived being shot in the face when she was just 12 years old, and she desperately wanted to give her four children a better life.
"Even though we might not have had a lot, we always made do and we had each other," he said, adding many of his friends faced physical and emotional abuse at home. "At the end of the day, I did have love. A family with morals and some type of principles to stand on."
His mother did her best to make their meager home a refuge from the streets. Deeply spiritual, her generosity extended to just about anyone in need. She could always be counted on to provide food and a couch for family and friends, many connected to her days in the projects. Burrell said he came to embrace these struggling souls who cycled in and out of his life, and he remembers being confused and hurt when others looked down on them, labeling them as prostitutes, drug dealers or gangsters. It was also difficult for him to understand when some crossed an invisible line, triggering warnings from his mom that they were "in too deep." Desperate to keep her son from getting sucked into that world, she packed up the family and moved them to Bemidji, three hours north. They returned to Minneapolis for a few days in November 2002 to spend Thanksgiving with Burrell's grandmother.
Twenty-four hours later, gunfire erupted on Chicago Avenue. Tyesha Edwards, a sixth-grader who dreamed of being a lawyer, was shot in the chest while doing homework at her dining room table.
Burrell said while he didn't know the little girl, he thinks about her often. They grew up in the same neighborhood, and his baby brother went to her school. Though Burrell had lost friends and family to street violence, it was his first experience with a death that was utterly senseless.
"In some ways, her loss affected me deeper than a lot of people I was close to," he said, adding it was partly because she appeared to be doing everything right against the odds. "And maybe because it was so personal in how our lives ended up being intertwined."
Though Burrell had not had any major scrapes with the law, police knew many of his closest friends had. When officers started looking for a suspect in the girl's killing, those associations became a red flag. Hours after the shooting, an often-used jail informant dropped Burrell's name. After more than eight hours of police questioning, the sole eyewitness — a teen rival with his own legal troubles — also fingered Burrell, cementing his future. Burrell was arrested the next day.
His experience started off rough. He was facing a first-degree murder charge in a high-profile case and placed in segregation — confined to a tiny room for 23 hours a day — when his sister called to tell him their mom had died in a fiery crash on her way home from visiting him. At the time, Klobuchar denied his request to attend the funeral, saying he was a threat to society.
Grief overwhelmed him, and it wasn't until his trial that he realized his court-appointed defense attorney had dropped the ball. Surveillance tapes were never pulled from the corner store where he insists he was buying food during the time of the shooting. And friends who he said saw him there that day were never called to the stand.
"So much was happening," he said, adding he still has not been able to find closure for his mother's death. "It was hard for me to really focus."
Even after Burrell was found guilty by a jury, his lawyer told him not to worry, an appeal was being filed and he'd be out within months. Time dragged, his conviction was overturned due to procedural violations. Instead of Burrell being let go, Klobuchar decided to recharge him in what was now a highly politicized case. He waived his rights to a jury and instead was tried before a judge, who again convicted him.
In the earliest days of lockup, he looked at the guards and administrators, expecting there would be some interaction, a chance to talk.
"But it's not like that," he said. "Now you have an officer, he's like, 'I'm in a position of authority. You're an inmate."
Every second of the day was accounted for. He was shuttled through the halls with other inmates to his job mopping floors, to eat at the mess hall or to the prison yard for some fresh air. Soon he stopped expecting anything. He quit fighting and became a "dead man walking."
At the time, he said, a death sentence felt as though it would be less cruel than life behind bars.
"When a person dies, they are able to rest in peace," he said. "They don't have to endure the pain of seeing how easily forgotten they are, or watch life go on without them."
He saw the changes happening in his own mirror. He aged prematurely, as is common for juvenile lifers. His once-full head of hair thinned, then started falling out. And he soon realized he had a choice. He could either give up or keep trying to uncover the truth. And he said those principles instilled during his childhood kicked in and eventually helped him navigate prison, even during the most difficult times.
"I still always knew that I had been given the strength to overcome these obstacles," Burrell said. "I've seen people come in here and go crazy. Little kids, like, hang themselves. I mean, 15 years old."
He said he lost faith, first in police, then in the penal system and the courts. Even, at times, in friends and family whose visits have become less frequent over the years. And though he is a practicing Muslim, he said he still finds himself asking at times, "How did God allow this to happen … was I just a sacrificial lamb?"
"I believe that's true for anyone who spends a long, long stint in prison, especially a life sentence," he said. "It might not stay that way, but I can't see being in a place like this and being pretty much condemned to die in this place and having strong faith all the time."
When nothing changed and it became clear he was stuck, he leaned on other juvenile lifers for support. The tight-knit group is a family of sorts, kids who have grown up together behind bars, helping each other pull through the darkest times, including his mother's death.
"A lot of these guys in here, you know, I know them better now than I know my whole family because we've been together our whole lives," he said. "You see a person go from being a kid to an adult, it's like they become family."
Like true relatives, they have their differences. Some may not always even like one another, "but you know them," he said, "you know their struggles, you know their ups and downs. Like family, they are yours."
Burrell gets updates from his family on the outside about all the attention his case is now getting — newspaper articles and video clips sent in 30-second segments through the prison email. Word has spread, too, to other juvenile lifers, who cheer him on.
"It's almost like if that light is shining on me, it shined for them as well," he said, adding for some it might just be a feeling of "well, this system is so crooked, but at least something is being done right now."
Though his day-to-day life in prison hasn't changed, Burrell said it's liberating to know that people now see him and they are finally listening to his screams.
For the first time in years, inmate No. 211839 has a name, a story and a measure of hope.
"I don't know how it's going to happen," he said. "But I do believe that, you know, these doors are going to open up and, God willing, it's going to be sooner than later."