“Minnesota Commutes Life Sentence Of Man Convicted As Teen Of Shooting 11-Year-Old,” the headline read. I expected to read a story about a man who, as a teen, shot and killed an 11-year-old consciously and intentionally—perhaps in a robbery, or a deal gone wrong. (I shouldn’t have.) I expected to read that his sentence was being commuted because he was a teen when he committed this heinous crime, and has since grown into adulthood as an exemplary inmate with a changed life. After all, commuting a sentence only means lessoning it—not overturning it.
But this is not the story I read.
I don’t think people should be locked up for the rest of their lives for something they did as teens, even if what they did was terrible. I think our system should focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. But this story isn’t about that.
It’s much, much worse.
Burrell, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was accused of fatally shooting an 11-year old girl, who was struck by a stray bullet while doing her homework inside her family’s Minneapolis home.
I have a child just that age, and I cannot fathom my anger and rage if something were to happen to her. Absolutely. Cannot. Fathom. But life imprisonment for a stray bullet? Burrell had family that loved him too. Burrell needed consequences for his action, and intervention—he was a child!—but life imprisonment? Absolutely not!
Already this story is not what I expected. Already this story was about someone who killed a child accidentally, and not intentionally, not with malice. Absolutely, firing a gun on a city street should have consequences. But murder? Really? His actions sound more like wanton endangerment. It’s perhaps worth noting here that wanton endangerment is what Brett Hankison, the police officer whose bullet likely killed Breonna Taylor, was indicted for.
The night Breonna Taylor was murdered, Hankison shot into an apartment building, propelling bullets into not only her unit but also those of others who were sleeping. He was charged with wanton endangerment. Burrell, in contrast, was charged with premeditated first-degree murder for a stray bullet that entered a house and killed a child.
But we’re not done yet. We’re not finished. Claims that our criminal justice system only metes out justice begin to unravel when you look at individual cases like this. And it gets much, much worse.
In 2002, Burrell was interrogated by Minneapolis police officers in a grueling session that lasted three hours.
Throughout the grilling, the teenage boy failed to ask for an attorney. Instead, he asked for his mother thirteen separate times.
Repeatedly, he said he wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the shooting. He said there was proof. He and a friend had taken a break from playing video games and walked to a convenience store in search of snacks. There was surveillance footage that could prove it, he told the officers.
The AP story showed the police never tracked down the surveillance video.
In the meantime, Burrell was certified as an adult and placed in solitary confinement as detectives questioned alleged witnesses and brought in two other suspects in connection with the shooting — one of whom later swore he was the trigger man.
They don’t even know if they got the right guy??
I have clearly failed this test. For a moment there, I thought the police surely must have had proof that Burrell fired the stray bullet that killed the child as she studied in her home. I thought it was the severity of the sentence—especially given Burrell’s age—that were amiss. But no! They sentenced a sixteen-year-old child to life in prison after a stray bullet killed an 11-year-old child, and they don’t even know if they got the right guy.
You know what? This isn’t actually about getting justice for the child who died. If Burrell never fired that gun, the family of that child never got justice. If Burrell never fired that gun, someone else did, and that person is still out there.
Oh and guess what? There’s video of cops paying people money to name Burrell as the shooter. Which, again, is not about getting justice. The real criminals here are the ones in charge of the system. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that her role in prosecuting this case is one thing that derailed Amy Klobuchar’s bid for the Democratic nomination.
Much of this came to light only after an AP investigation last year. Today, Burrell is finally free, after 18 years in prison. He has spent over half of his life in prison. He and I are the same age. How many people like him are still sitting in prison, put there on spurious charges by cops who weren’t actually in it to get justice?
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