Prosecutors Can’t Run for President Anymore
Voters care more about criminal justice reform than soundbites.
Myon Burrell was 16-years-old in 2002 when he visited his grandmother in Minneapolis for Thanksgiving. Although the holiday was supposed to bring together his family, little did they know that it would tear them apart. Within 24 hours of arriving in Minneapolis, the police arrested Myon for a gang shooting he wasn’t even involved in.
The shooters, although failing to hit their planned target, accidently shot and killed Tyesha Edwards, an eleven-year-old girl, through the window of her home nearby. With the public outcry following her murder, police were hasty to pin the blame on a suspect. And that suspect became Myon.
Why police targeted Myon is anyone’s guess. But they did. The police fueled the rumor mill with money, offering cash for hearsay and paying people who blamed Myon. They told the self-confessed real gunman that if he wanted to see the outside of a prison ever again, he had to tell them Myon was the one who pulled the trigger. When the getaway driver provided a different name and photo for the killer, police ignored it to avoid “muddying up” the case. They ignored the fact that their star eyewitness had been standing 120 feet away and on the opposite side of a wall, interviewing the witness for eight hours before “losing” the recording. No one checked for fingerprints or looked at a surveillance tape that Myon said would prove his alibi.
Today, the jurors say they were misled and would never have convicted Myon if they’d known about any of this. It’s 17 years later and Myon is now 33. He has spent the majority of his life in jail, including several of his formulative years. And all for a crime he didn’t commit.
Since the trial, Myon has constantly said that he never commited the crime. One of the other people convicted of the same crime, Ike Tyson, agrees. He says he fired the bullet, and Myon was never even there. But at the time of the trial, Tyson was told he would go to prison for life if he didn’t say what the police wanted to hear. It worked: Tyson got sentenced as one of the murderers but not the triggerman, and is now serving a 45-year sentence.
Crimes getting pinned on innocent people is unfortunately all too common. This happens in every court across the country. A lot of the time the person in Myon’s position pleads guilty because the prosecutors say, “We have overwhelming amounts of evidence. We can convict you. If you plead guilty now, you can see the outside of a prison someday.” Lots of people give in and admit to crimes they didn’t do. Myon didn’t want to take blame for something he didn’t do. This is all, sadly, normal in today’s America.
What is unusual about Myon’s case is that the head prosecutor is now running for President. Amy Klobuchar boasted of the Myon Burrell case on the debate stage as an example of her record as a county district attorney defending communities of color against rampant crime. And then she got hit with the criticism.
Within a day, the Minneapolis NAACP was calling for her to quit the presidential race. So was the Racial Justice Network, Communities United Against Police Brutality, and many others. Klobuchar’s campaign replied that she was only the prosecutor for Myon’s first trial — there were two — and if there’s new evidence it should be reviewed by the court.
But it’s not about new evidence. It’s about evidence that the police and prosecution had all along and never told the defense or the court. Maybe she personally didn’t know about it, more likely she did; either way the responsibility for a high-profile murder case decision stops with the district attorney.
Going in to the Iowa caucuses, Klobuchar was in a respectable position at the top of the second tier. Polling at nine percent. Projected to have a decent chance at serious numbers of delegates and the momentum that comes with it. There was even talk she might outperform Elizabeth Warren.
Instead she came out of Iowa with no delegates at all. It’s impossible to say how much this specific scandal hurt her. But likely some. Being called out by home-state activists whose endorsement she might have hoped for has to hurt.
Today, voters aren’t buying what prosecutors are selling. We know their job isn’t to secure justice. It’s to get convictions.
Today, voters aren’t buying what prosecutors are selling. We know their job isn’t to secure justice. It’s to get convictions. If they get convictions by bribing and threatening witnesses, no one finds out and they get a good story to use when running for higher office. A few places have started electing civil rights attorneys and public defenders as district attorneys, on a platform of actual criminal justice reform. This has lowered conviction rates. But those are still the exception. Injustice is the norm. Until now.
All the candidates have broadly similar chances of winning in November. But if Klobuchar loses for this reason, it’s a sign that voters will no longer accept a history as a prosecutor locking up innocent people. And that’s the end for any ambitious prosecutors hoping to serve in the highest office.
I dare any district attorney in the country to point to a high-profile murder case that stands up to this kind of scrutiny. Maybe some cases aren’t as bad, but prosecutors do all the same things: coerced testimony, unfairly motivating jailhouse informants, threatening plea deals.
Klobuchar’s loss shows that voters won’t stand for it. Even in lily-white Iowa, where the racial justice angle gets less attention than the regular justice angle, voters didn’t buy it. This is good news. It means that the way to elected office isn’t by having a tough-on-crime record as a prosecutor. And ambitious politicians will notice they can’t gain power by locking up people in an assembly line.
Kamala Harris defended her career as California’s top cop by saying it was what she had to do to earn a seat at the table. It worked. But it doesn’t work anymore. The next Harris or Klobuchar will have to do something else instead. Literally anything else.
This election, the impact of Myon’s case has been felt strongly by Amy Klobuchar, but it’s not really about Amy Klobuchar. She’s just the current face of what’s soon to be yesterday’s problem. The real story is that prosecutors can’t be unjust and still expect their work to pass for justice. Prosecutors just can’t be president.