MSR Town Hall addresses tough-on-crime fallout

Demetrius Pendleton (l-r) Kevin Reese and Elizer Darris

The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) hosted its first-ever town hall forum on Monday entitled, “The consequences of the 2000’s ‘tough-on-crime’ policy and the controversial prosecution of Myon Burrell.”

Nearly 100 people attended the event held at the former Thor building in North Minneapolis. The town hall came on the heels of a protest at a scheduled rally for Senator Amy Klobuchar last Sunday and her subsequent decision to drop out of the presidential race. Protesters sought to bring attention to what they deemed as Klobuchar’s wrongful prosecution of Myon Burrell.

The event included two panels: one that focused on the consequences of the tough-on-crime policy as advocated by then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and others in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Panelists included Kevin Reese, an organizer with Voices for Racial Justice, an organization that focuses on racial justice; Elizer Darris with the ACLU; and Bruce Nestor, local lawyer and member of the National Lawyers Guild Minnesota chapter.

“Klobuchar’s policy, it wasn’t an aberration… She was elected with broad public support, and she ran on policies which the people of Hennepin County wanted,” said Nestor. “They wanted that tough-on-crime at that time. That was popular rhetoric. It was a deliberate attempt by a White politician to understand the racial fears of White people and to play to them.”

Nestor placed the tough-on-crime policies in historical context: “Once the legal edifice of Jim Crow comes down, we came up with a new legal edifice which was the War on Crime, later the War on Drugs. It targets certain populations.”

According to the attorney, Burrell’s conviction “was a symptom of the profound structural injustice which exists in this society and in this city.”

Darris, who is Black, told the audience that he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 15 and that he was housed with adults. “I didn’t see one single juvenile that was White. I only saw juveniles that looked like me.”

His case was such a miscarriage of justice that the Supreme Court had to overturn it because they concluded that the prosecution did not present any evidence that supported his conviction. He was convicted and sentenced in Minnesota’s Polk County by an all-White jury.

Demetrius Pendleton The MSR’s first town hall saw close to 100 attendees

Darris suggested that a board should be created to review the sentences of juveniles who have been incarcerated.

Reese, who also was a juvenile when he was prosecuted and sentenced, said that the representative from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office told him pointedly, “My boss wants you. You are going to jail.” He said that at the time he was sentenced in 2004, juveniles were being handed sentences of 30 to 25 years on average. He said he didn’t commit a crime but happened to be on the scene.

“They knew I didn’t do it,” Reese recalled. “I was just there. They knew I didn’t pull the trigger.” He was charged with felony murder. “My first day in St. Cloud it was like a class reunion. Everybody was there,” he said, explaining that many of the juveniles were from his neighborhood.

“After I paid my debt, they didn’t even give me a receipt that says this man paid his debt. I still don’t have my civil liberties,” explained Reese. He suggested that since they were held accountable as juveniles though they were not fully mature, the people who were responsible for these policies should be held accountable as well.

“I am extending an olive branch to Amy Klobuchar,” said panelist Leslie Redmond, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, who opened the discussion on the second panel. Other members of the panel were Nekima Levy Armstrong of the Racial Justice Network, Joe McLean, and members of the Burrell family.

“At any moment she can join us in this campaign to free Myon Burrell.” Last month at a press conference, the NAACP had called on Klobuchar to suspend her campaign because of her record as Hennepin County Attorney.

McLean, who served as foreman on the first jury that convicted Burrell, said he has begun to speak out because he believes that Burrell’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice and it became personal for him. “Our evidence was very thin.

“At one point I sent the judge a note asking if this was all the evidence, and the judge confirmed that everything that had been presented was all the evidence that was available,” said McLean. “We didn’t know the deals that had been cut with Hennepin County. There was no fingerprints, no DNA, no gun.”

McLean said the actual shooter, Ike Tyson, had already told prosecutors that Burrell had nothing to do with the case. “I was struck by the gravity of signing my name to that jury packet, and it has haunted me ever since.”

Demetrius Pendleton Leslie Redmond, Joe McLean, Lucretia Luckett, Ianna Burrell, Michael Toussaint, Nekima Levy Armstrong and Mel Reeves

Myon Burrell’s family members on the panel included his sister Ianna Burrell, his father Michael Toussaint, and his wife Lucretia Luckett. They recalled their struggles to bring attention to Myon’s case.

Luckett, who married Burrell 10 years ago, was a childhood friend. She related that the family has hired lawyers who have continually dropped the ball.

Toussaint reminded the audience that Myon’s mother died in an auto accident a month after he had been arrested. As county attorney, Klobuchar refused to allow Burrell to attend his mother’s funeral.

“Never once did I try to convince somebody that my son was innocent,” said Toussaint. “I shouldn’t have to convince them. All you have to do is read the actual paperwork, [which] shows that he shouldn’t be incarcerated.”

He expressed empathy for Tyeesha Edwards, the child who was killed in 2002, and her family. He also called out the system, which he explained was rigged to throw people away, and praised McLean for taking the risk to stand up for his son.

Levy Armstrong recalled how she had taken on a case pro bono similar to Burrell’s, and like Myon’s case there were lots of holes. According to her, it was obvious that the young man didn’t do it, but he was denied a second trial.

“It’s not easy for the family… It’s not easy to be confronting systems,” said Levy Armstrong. “We are going to have to apply pressure on Mike Freeman [current Hennepin County Attorney]. He has the power to file a stipulation to dismiss Myon’s case.”

Levy Armstrong said the next step is to take the case before the Minnesota pardon board that includes the governor, attorney general, and the chief justice of the State Supreme Court. Redmond related that she and others have been working behind the scenes and have reached out to the current chief justice Governor Waltz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

The MSR plans to continue hosting town halls periodically to expand our reach, impact and engagement around issues pertinent to the community. We welcome your ideas/suggestions for future MSR forums at submissions@spokesman-recorder.com.

Find more info about the Myon Burrell case below:

Minnesota man seeks to toss his murder conviction Sen. Amy Klobuchar stood behind for 17 years

Teen’s life sentence now questioned

Activists call for the release of Myon Burrell

Klobuchar campaign can’t shake blowback from Myon Burrell conviction

Did Amy Klobuchar Send an Innocent Teenager to Life in Prison?

About Mel Reeves

Mel Reeves is the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He welcomes reader responses at mreeves@spokesman-recorder.com. Find his personal blog at fighthepowerjournal.com.

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