Klobuchar's claims about black teen's case draw criticism

Sen. Amy Klobuchar campaigns in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign event at Barley's Taproom on Jan. 28, 2020, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Civil rights activists and legal experts challenged Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s claims that she was unaware of questionable evidence and police tactics used to send a young black teen to prison for life when she was a top Minneapolis prosecutor.

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Klobuchar denied that she had knowledge of any evidence that would call the conviction into question. But much of what The Associated Press found while investigating the case of Myon Burrell, now 33, would have been available to her office at the time.

Man in white standing in hallway of a prison
Myon Burrell
John Minchillo | AP

Burrell was accused of firing the gun the killed 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards in 2002 while she was doing homework at her dining room table in south Minneapolis.

Klobuchar, who was Hennepin County attorney at the time, has raised the case throughout her political career as an example of how she helped find justice for victims of violence.

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“I didn’t know about this new evidence until I saw the report,” Klobuchar told Fox host Chris Wallace when asked about allegations the teen may have been wrongfully convicted. “I couldn’t have. I haven’t been in the office for 12 years.”

As she and other hopefuls entered the Iowa Democratic caucuses, Klobuchar said any new evidence should be brought forward and considered immediately by the courts.

Klobuchar has trailed the top tier of candidates in Iowa, but she is hoping to exceed expectations by touting her moderate record and ability to win in Republican-heavy areas.

The AP offered repeatedly to meet with Klobuchar to discuss the Burrell case, but she declined.

What her office would have known at the time of Burrell’s first trial in 2003:

  • The case hinged on a single eyewitness — a teen rival of Burrell’s who gave conflicting accounts of what he saw.

  • No gun, fingerprints or hard evidence linked Burrell to the crime.

  • Police video showed the lead homicide detective offering informants cash for information — even if it was hearsay.

  • Burrell’s co-defendants said he was not even at the scene.

  • The getaway driver gave a physical description and the first name of a suspect, but police did not follow up.

  • Alibis mentioned by Burrell in his interrogation were not questioned by police.

  • Officers did not pull a convenience store surveillance tape that Burrell said would have cleared him.

Rebbeca Kavanagh, a New York-based criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, said Monday the AP did not uncover new evidence that exonerates Myon Burrell.

“Rather, it exposed how the very evidence that Amy Klobuchar used to convict him was tainted and that her office ignored overwhelming evidence of his innocence,” she said..

Several prosecutors in the Hennepin County office during Klobuchar’s tenure from 1998 to 2006, including two who handled Burrell’s 2003 and 2008 trials, at times were accused of racism and fear-mongering during opening or closing arguments in cases involving minority defendants.

That included asking mostly white jurors to consider “the type of people” they were facing when talking about the credibility of the accused or their alibis, according to defense attorneys and appellate opinions citing prosecutorial misconduct. There is no evidence that prosecutors made such statements in Burrell's case. But some legal experts said the comments call into question minority defendants' ability to get a fair trial.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined Monday to comment on the accusations.

Even if Klobuchar was not familiar with every detail of the case, “what can she say about tolerating prosecutors who routinely described black and inner city as morally inferior to white and suburban?” asked Michael Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.

Klobuchar told Fox she was not involved with the second trial in 2008, which relied heavily on jailhouse informants, some of whom have since recanted. However, her office was working hand-in-hand with police in the leadup to the second trial, the AP found. Klobuchar also told Wallace she worked with the Innocence Project, which reviews past cases.

The case against Burrell renews focus on law enforcement and policy in the 1990s and 2000s, when black and Hispanic communities were decimated by the war on drugs and the now-discredited “super-predator” theory.

Democrats joined Republicans in imposing harsher policing and tougher sentencing, leading to the highest incarceration rates in the nation’s history, and some presidential candidates are having to address perceived excesses of that period.

The president of the national NAACP said over the weekend that Burrell’s conviction points to a bigger problem: the eagerness of America’s criminal justice system to put young black men behind bars.

“We’ve seen this happen one too many times,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement.

“It is unfortunate and extremely troubling that Myon Burrell has spent the majority of his life behind bars. The lack of evidence and conflicting accounts of what transpired was reason enough for him to not be charged or convicted,” Johnson said.

Even before the AP story, Klobuchar was struggling to win over black voters, who are a crucial voting block in Democratic Party.

On the eve of the Iowa caucus, she told Fox her agenda speaks to the African American community.

“It’s about economic opportunity, it’s about voting rights ... that’s on me and I will keep crisscrossing the country, making my case to the African-American community as I’ve done here in Iowa.”