Myon Burrell stepped outside of the Stillwater prison a free man Tuesday after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime he says he never committed, rousing dozens of supporters in the frigid evening into cheers and applause.
Cloaked from head-to-toe in a traditional Islamic thobe garment colored all white to signify rebirth, Burrell raised his right fist in the air as he stood on the prison’s front steps.
“Myon’s free! Myon’s free!” the crowd cheered about 6:45 p.m. while drum beats filled the air.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons voted Tuesday afternoon to immediately release Burrell from a life prison sentence in the 2002 fatal shooting of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, who was killed when a stray bullet penetrated her Minneapolis home.
The moment was a sign of hope and justice for many in the Black community who said too many of them have been wrongly imprisoned. It stoked their commitment to fight for others whose cases didn’t become a presidential candidate’s talking point and subsequently, a media sensation.
“It’s a new day in America,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The people will no longer be silent about injustice.”
Burrell initially didn’t speak publicly, shaking hands instead as supporters swarmed him. But after corrections officers escorted him to a waiting car he turned to the crowd.
“I can’t express my gratitude for all my supporters,” he said, waving his hand in the air. “We’re fighting for justice. There’s too much injustice going on.”
An SUV whisked him away into the night as celebrants, including his son, continued to cheer in the street.
“This was the best feeling I ever had,” said 19-year-old Myon Burrell Jr., who was a year old when his father was arrested. “I’ve been waiting for that my whole life, since I was one years old. Now that he’s out, he ain’t never going back!”
It was the culmination of years of fights to clear Burrell’s name that stalled until the Associated Press published an investigation earlier this year raising several concerns with the police investigation and his prosecution.
It came exactly a week after an independent panel of national experts released a study calling for Burrell’s release from prison. The study echoed the Associated Press’ findings and cited authorities’ reliance on jailhouse informants and investigators’ apparent dismissal of potentially exonerating evidence as cause for his release, among other factors.
After hearing from Burrell, his attorney Perry Moriearty and two supporters for about 35 minutes, Gov. Tim Walz, a member of the Board of Pardons, proposed commuting Burrell’s life term to 20 years and requiring him to serve the remainder of the time — two years — on supervised release.
Burrell burst into tears as he watched via teleconference.
“Mr. Burrell, you talked about extracting poison and bringing medicine,” Walz said. “It’s clear to me that you have the power to make a difference.”
Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who also sits on the board, voted to approve the release. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea is the third board member, but recused herself because of prior involvement in the case.
“Thank you, thank you,” Burrell said as he held an open palm up to the camera. “I appreciate it.”
Burrell, 34, was 16 when rival gang members identified him to police as the person who fired shots at a rival, sending a stray bullet into Edwards’ home and killing her as she did homework at the dining room table. He has long maintained his innocence.
Walz noted that the board’s commutation was not a determination of guilt or innocence, but was motivated by the “exceptionally long” sentence he received as a minor.
“It shows what this board can do; it can bring justice and mercy,” Walz said.
Walz noted that Edwards’ father, Jimmie Edwards, did not support the commutation. He could have spoken at Burrell’s hearing but was not present.
Ellison said he spoke to Edwards’ stepfather, Leonard Winborn.