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Myon Burrell
Myon Burrell is released from Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater on Tuesday, Dec. 15, in Bayport. His attorney Perry Moriearty is shown at right. (AP photo: John Minchillo )

Burrell free after commutation

Myon Burrell was not the only applicant to walk away happy from the state Board of Pardons meeting on Dec. 15.

Of 21 requests for pardons or commutations heard by the three-member panel, only six were denied outright. No immediate action was taken on two others; both of those likely will be heard again next year.

But Burrell’s case was the spotlight grabber.

Now 34, Burrell was 16 when he was convicted of murdering 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards in 2002. He was serving life with the possibility of parole for her killing, plus 12 months for the attempted murder of Timothy Oliver, the intended target.

But now he is out of custody. His sentence was commuted to 20 years, with the remainder to be served on supervised release.

“Mr. Burrell,” Gov. Tim Walz told him Tuesday, “you’ll live your life as you see fit.”

“I can’t even explain my gratitude,” Burrell told supporters in a brief statement upon his release. “We’re fighting for this justice. There is too much injustice going on.”

Before recommending the commutation, Walz cited discoveries in juvenile brain science made after Burrell’s initial 2003 conviction. Those advances have been cited in a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, beginning with 2005’s Roper v. Simmons ruling, a death penalty case in which Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their crimes.

Later rulings have found juveniles more capable of rehabilitation and therefore constitutionally different for sentencing purposes, University of Minnesota Law School Professor Perry Moriearty told the Pardons Board. She appeared as Burrell’s counsel.

Walz also cited a recent report on the Burrell case by an independent national panel, chaired by University of St. Thomas Law School professor Mark Osler. It raised questions about the integrity of Burrell’s sentence and conviction.

Among other things, the Osler report found that exculpatory evidence at trial either was discounted, never got introduced or disappeared altogether. It also found that no purpose is served by Burrell’s continued imprisonment.

Walz said that the Pardons Board is no fact-finding tribunal and was not adjudicating Burrell’s guilt or innocence. Still, he said, the Osler report “raised really important questions,” which he hopes get examined further.

Rather, Walz said, his recommendation reflects what he called “the exceptionally long sentence in this case.”

Though he walked free later that day, Burrell did not get exactly what he wanted. Moriearty urged members to give him both a pardon and commutation to time served. She also wanted Burrell not be placed on conditional release “so that he may truly experience freedom.”

Chief recuses

The case was decided by Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, the board’s third member, recused herself. Walz said she stepped away because of “her previous involvement in the case.”

It’s not clear what that involvement was and the Judicial Branch declined to say. Reasons for recusal are not public information, the branch said.

Burrell was first convicted in 2003, a year before Gildea joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor. She was there in July 2005, when Burrell’s convictions were vacated by the state Supreme Court. But it’s unclear what role she had in the case. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said it would look into that but had no answers by deadline.

By the time Burrell was retried and convicted again in 2008, Gildea was a Supreme Court associate justice. When the Supreme Court heard Burrell’s second appeal in 2009, upholding his second conviction but overturning his sentence, Gildea took no part in the decision.

David Schultz, the political science and law instructor, said he found the recusal “perplexing.” He suggested the chief might have recused to avoid any appearance of a conflict because of her former association with the prosecutor’s office.

“It’s possible that she discussed confidential information during that time and maybe that’s why she felt like she needed to recuse herself,” he said. “That would be my best guess.”

Had she not stepped back from the case, it is less than certain that Burrell’s sentence would have been commuted. The board must approve pardons or commutations unanimously. The vote for Burrell was 2-0.

Life for another’s crime

Things didn’t work out as well for Maureen Onyelobi, who is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for acting as accomplice to a first-degree murder in 2014.

Onyelobi, 35, was sentenced by now-retired Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel H. Mabley six years ago, for causing the death of Anthony Fairbanks, 23. But she did not fire the gun that killed him. David Johnson fired the four rounds into Fairbanks’ head, and also was convicted of the murder. She is serving life without possibility of release while the murderer is due to be released in 2040.

Both at trial and before the Pardons Board, Onyelobi argued that she accompanied Johnson to the scene of the shooting, but did not know he was going to kill Fairbanks, whom she called “a good person.” Nor did she help plan the crime. Johnson submitted an affidavit agreeing with her.

But prosecutors contended that she both supplied the murder weapon and lured Fairbanks to death at the direction of her then boyfriend, Maurice Wilson, who allegedly ordered the hit by phone while in federal custody.

Onyelobi admitted that, after the murder, she tried to hide the gun in a storage locker and misled police investigating the crime. But that makes her guilty of being an accessory after the fact, she argued. It didn’t make her a first-degree murderer.

“This is life or death for me,” she said. “It means I will die in prison.”

Onyelobi, who earned several academic degrees before she was imprisoned, earned a paralegal certificate while in prison and wants to become an attorney. She also wants to lobby the Capitol for changes to the state’s felony murder laws — which Walz called some of the harshest on Earth.

Attorney General Keith Ellison credited Onyelobi story, saying there is evidence that she did not assist in planning the crime.

“The person who actually pulled the trigger and admitted that he planned the crime, he gets 480 months and you can have life without possibility of parole?” Ellison said. “That seems unfair to me.”

But he did not agree to her proposed 10-year sentence commutation. Ellison instead suggested a 300-months commutation — 25 years — but he found no support. Walz then suggested a commutation to life in prison, but with the possibility of parole.

Gildea, who wrote the 2019 appellate opinion upholding Onyelobi’s conviction, was reluctant to accept Walz’s alternative without first hearing reactions from prosecutors and the District Court.

As the panel batted around alternatives, Onyelobi wept.

In the end, the board took no action. Members agreed to seek more information and call the case back next spring to consider a possible commutation — probably with considerably more time served than the would-be lawyer hoped.

Other cases

Among the 19 cases on Tuesday’s docket, several were of note.

  • Maria Nelly Elizondo. No action was taken on the 61-year-old’s application for a pardon or commutation. Convicted of wrongfully obtaining public assistance, Elizondo faces deportation unless she is granted a full pardon. The panel was amenable, but only if more than $15,000 in unpaid restitution is satisfied first. The board said it would bring the case back for a hearing and grant a full pardon once that money is paid. Her son, a member of the U.S. armed services, pledged to make it happen.
  • Darren Lawrence Netland. In 1993, Netland, now 48, broke into a trailer occupied by a sleeping couple he did not know, took knives from their kitchen, stripped naked and stabbed them in bed. Bonnie Rannow, 21, died with her unborn child. Scott Vacek was seriously wounded in the chest, but survived. Netland, who left his wallet and car keys at the crime scene, told police he thought he only dreamed the murders and broke into sobs upon learning they were real. He is serving life with the possibility of parole. He requested no change to his life sentence for the murders, only a commutation or pardon for the 180-month sentence for attempted murder, which he is to serve consecutively. The panel denied his application.
  • Edward Fukashima. The 66-year-old Canadian owns a $20 million business in the wood industry. In Las Vegas, he says, he won money at a casino slot machine and got a payout in $100 bills. They turned out to be counterfeit. On a later trip from Canada to the United States, he was arrested by the Border Patrol in Cook County, after using a fake $100 bill to buy Powerball tickets and being found with more fake money in his wallet. He pleaded guilty to one gross misdemeanor count of carrying counterfeit currency. A pardon would make it easier to do business in the United States and continue his regular family outings to Minnesota, he said. Walz described the episode as “a nightmare scenario” that could have happened to anyone. Fukashima’s pardon was granted, contingent on submission of proof that he has no Canadian criminal record. He has 45 days to provide that documentation.

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