BAYPORT, Minn. (AP) — During his free time, Myon Burrell sits at a desk in his small, tidy prison cell, sifting through stacks of papers — police records, court transcripts and witness statements — taking breaks and pacing the floor while trying to digest the incomprehensible inconsistencies that landed him here 17 years ago.
When frustrated or angry, he lies on his cot and covers his face, waiting to regain his composure. All he can do now is wait and hope.
His story by now is familiar. He was convicted and sentenced to life for the stray-bullet killing of an 11-year-old girl, Tyesha Edwards, who was sitting at her kitchen table doing her homework. The then-district attorney, now Sen. Amy Klobuchar, trumpeted her prosecution of Burrell as part of her tough-on-crime stance as a top Minneapolis prosecutor. But a yearlong Associated Press investigation discovered major flaws and inconsistencies in the case, raising questions as to whether the then-16-year-old shooting suspect may have been wrongly convicted.
The allegation that Klobuchar may have helped imprison a black teenager on faulty evidence and questionable witnesses has dogged her.
In the face of immense criticism, Klobuchar, who suspended her presidential campaign on Monday, has called for a review of Burrell’s case. But her successor at the county attorney’s office, Mike Freeman, has doubled down, releasing a statement and video 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.”
It’s unclear if all the attention will result in a fresh look at the evidence that led to Burrell’s conviction.
Still, what matters to Burrell, who has never spent a day of his adult life outside prison, is that his side of the story is finally being heard. Even so, he said during a prison interview, he remains deeply distrustful of a system he believes has failed him from the start.
Now almost 34, Burrell is one of 1,600 inmates at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater, just outside Minneapolis. Inmates here live in cells stacked on top of one another, five tiers high.
Burrell arrived at the facility as a baby-faced teenager, not yet old enough to shave. He was forced to grow up fast.
“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. “You lock a kid up and say, ‘This is your cell, this where you’re going to die at, get comfortable’ … especially for a crime that you didn’t commit. It’s a real hopeless feeling.”
He said in the earliest days of lockup, he looked at the guards and prison 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. You’re pretty much a number. Whatever I say goes.’”
Every second of the day was accounted for. He was shuttled through the halls with other inmates like cattle to his job mopping floors or to the prison yard for some fresh air. Soon he stopped expecting anything. He says he stopped fighting and became a “dead man walking.”
He has watched himself age prematurely, as is common for juvenile lifers. His once full head of hair thinned, then started falling out.
He had once held out hope that police and prosecutors would realize their mistakes and he would be set free.
Even after Burrell was found guilty by a jury the first time, his lawyer told him not to worry, an appeal was being filed and he’d be out within months.
His conviction was overturned by the Minnesota state Supreme Court in part due to several questionable tactics by police and prosecutors. But instead of letting Burrell go, Klobuchar’s office decided to recharge him.
For the second trial, on his lawyer’s advice, he decided to waive his right to a jury and was instead tried before a judge, who again convicted him.
When it became clear that he was not going to be released, he tried to adjust to prison life and found ways to cope. He leaned on other juvenile lifers he met in prison for support.
The tight-knit group is a family of sorts, he and others say, kids who have grown up together behind bars, helping each other pull through the darkest times, including the death of Burrell’s mother, who died in a car accident shortly after his imprisonment. Klobuchar denied his request to attend the funeral, saying he was a threat to society.
“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,” Burrell said. “You see a person go from being a kid to an adult, it’s like they become family.”
Like real families, 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 along.
“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 says it’s liberating to know that people now see him and are finally listening.
And for the first time in years, he isn’t just inmate No. 211839. There is 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.”
ROBIN McDOWELL and MARGIE MASON
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