After hundreds of hours of fighting on behalf of plaintiffs, University of Minnesota Law students often find that their incarcerated clients have too much to contribute to society to be kept behind bars.
As part of the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic in the University’s Law School, students represent clients in juvenile delinquency and child custody cases under the supervision of the two licensed attorneys who lead the clinic. The students work as their clients’ primary lawyers for free.
“(The students have) all been incredibly devoted to our clients,” said Perry Moriearty, a law professor who co-directs the clinic. “They have really engaged with the legal issues, put in thousands of hours to attempt to convince courts and prosecutors that our clients shouldn’t die in prison.”
The CAC was created nearly 30 years ago by professor Jean Sanderson and primarily worked on civil custody cases until Moriearty joined the faculty in 2008. Moriearty had a focus on juvenile delinquency cases and brought that expertise into her co-director role, The Minnesota Daily reported.
Then, the CAC began representing people who were serving sentences for juvenile offenses, even if they were no longer kids — including Myon Burrell.
Burrell’s release was not an overnight victory.
The 34-year-old was serving life with the opportunity for parole after 30 years for first-degree murder and 15 years for attempted first-degree murder in connection with the death of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. Burrell has maintained his innocence since his 2002 conviction when he was 16.
Burrell’s release in December was the culmination of years of work from family and community — and eventually the CAC team.
Last spring, the Associated Press published an investigative report on Burrell’s conviction, poking holes in the evidence. Moriearty said this article helped to create momentum for Burrell’s eventual release. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the county attorney at the time of the first conviction and was running for president when the article was published. “So people paid attention to it,” Moriearty said.
Moriearty and students represented Burrell for his pardon and commutation hearing last December. It was the CAC’s first clemency case.
Burrell and his sister filed a petition for a pardon in November 2019. The CAC team started on the case in August 2020 to add a commutation request — a reduction of the sentence — to Burrell’s pardon application.
The CAC challenged Burrell’s punishment, not his conviction.
The team argued that the 18 years he had already served were disproportionately harsh, especially because they say he did not commit the crime. They also pushed that he should be released because he did well during his incarceration and had a stable reentry plan.
Moriearty brought recent University graduate Matthew DiTullio onto the case, who prepared for the hearing by getting to know Burrell and gathering evidence to support his request.
DiTullio said it was the CAC’s job to show Minnesota’s Board of Pardons that Burrell deserved to be let out and that he would come home to “family, friends and a road to employment” if he was released. He noted that Burrell is very close with his family and is deeply connected to his faith after converting to Islam while in prison.
Third-year law student Kaitlyn Falk said her role as the student attorney was to gather evidence in support of Burrell’s petition, review 18 years of prison records, meet with family members and work with the team to tell Burrell’s story.
Burrell’s family, especially his sister, was instrumental in keeping the community’s attention on the case.
“I think what’s happening with Myon is truly incredible. And it’s also an excellent demonstration that there’s a lot, a lot of work still to be done,” DiTullio said. “And a lot of people who are facing similar circumstances to Myon’s are needing to be out and have so much to contribute.”
A few months before Burrell’s release, an independent panel of national legal experts was formed to examine if he was wrongfully convicted and, separately, whether the sentence he was serving was excessive. Prior to his commutation, the panel found both things to be true.
“The time that he had served seemed to be enough,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and sentencing expert who chaired the panel. “If we keep people in prison beyond the point where our goals are fulfilled, we’re just being cruel.”
Burrell was advised not to speak to the media while he has an active case.
Once Burrell’s petition for commutation was approved, he was released from Stillwater prison on Dec. 15. He is now serving two years of supervised release.
“It’s really incredible to see the changes that your work can do for a person’s life,” Falk said. “You can just kind of see the life brought back into him.”
This was the first commutation request granted by Minnesota’s Board of Pardons since at least 1992.
But Moriearty said the credit goes to the family and community members who continued to “yell at the top of their lungs, to protest, to get people to pay attention to the fact that he was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that no state is allowed to have a statute or law that makes it mandatory for a juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole.
Minnesota had this statute. So after the Supreme Court ruling, Minnesota was required to convert those to 30-year sentences, which applied to eight inmates in the state.
One of them — who is currently represented by the CAC — was Brian Flowers.
Flowers was convicted in 2010 of two counts of aiding and abetting first-degree murder and was given two sentences of life without parole when he was 16 years old.
The CAC has been working with Flowers for over seven years and will represent him at an upcoming resentencing hearing. Students will argue that he should serve his two 30-year to life sentences concurrently, not consecutively. This would mean he would be eligible for release after 30 years.
Following the Miller v. Alabama ruling, courts are supposed to approach juvenile cases differently than adult cases due to a juvenile’s “reduced culpability,” “greater capacity to change” and more outside influence “by their environment,” said Anwen Parrott, a third-year law student and a CAC student director working on the Flowers case.
“What we know about who our client was then and who he is now … his culpability suggests you should have it a shorter sentence of 30 years,” Parrott said.
Nari Kretschmer, a third-year law student and co-student director for the Flowers case with Parrott, said the resentencing of juveniles facing a sentence of life without parole is an uncharted area of law that she is grateful for to be working on as a student.
“Brian always tells us that he feels really lucky to have us because most of the people in his position don’t have people fighting for them,” Kretschmer said.
Flowers’ next resentencing hearing has been pushed back to May due to the pandemic. He was advised not to speak to the media while he has an active case.
“I think we’ve had sort of individual incremental victories in a case,” Moriearty said. “But in cases like Brian Flowers’ case, we don’t see ourselves as done or really having had a victory until they’re out.”
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