Brendan Dassey and the Pursuit of Mercy
‘We can’t shackle our children in 2020, we need to grow as our science grows,” said the Governor of Minnesota Tim Walz when commuting the sentence of Myon Burrell. Burrell was 16 years of age when sentenced to life for the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. A sixth grader who was killed when a vagrant bullet punctured her South Minneapolis home in 2002.
Advocates fought for years for Burrell’s freedom however it would take an investigation by the Associated Press and American Public Media; and a study conducted by an independent panel of national experts to realise a semblance of justice for Myon Burrell. Sadly, Burrell’s experience is not an aberration. A conviction despite a lack of evidence, DNA, weapon, or fingerprints, it is a tragically familiar tale of prosecutorial hubris. A system that provides little more than a modicum of due process for the children caught in the ebb and flow of flawed investigations, jailhouse informants and spurious interrogation techniques.
"It shows what this board can do; it can bring justice and mercy," Walz said. But this relief was not the result of an effective and fair judicial system, no that had failed. The commutation was the anomaly. A Governor and Attorney General influenced by developments in juvenile neuroscience and brain development and sentencing that supported redemption not recidivism was the exception. There was no political timidity to be found. Walz a Democrat, dragging mercy out of the shadow of the Dukakis debacle of 1988, had set a precedent – an audacious dismissal of partisan politics and opposing public opinion.
The determination of guilt or innocence is dependent on ill-informed jurors, the absence of expert testimony and the legal representation of often overworked or ineffective public defenders. There is no “Do not go gentle into that good night” representation for the indigent, not in Wisconsin anyway, not if your name is Brendan Dassey. Not if it's May 4th, 2006. And there is no dismissal of partisan politics by Governor Tony Evers as he contends with the Republican led legislature of Wisconsin, acquiescing to legacy issues rather than taking meaningful steps toward criminal justice reform. One of which is emulating Walz and granting commutations – at the least.
Thankfully, Walz is not a solitary figure in this season of (for)giving, both Governor Whitmer of Michigan and Governor Cooper of North Carolina have granted clemency and Pardons of Innocence restoring rights, dignity, and freedom to the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced. Yet still Brendan Dassey waits.
There are varying pathways to a pardon of innocence that Evers and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul could pursue, not least the formation of a Conviction Review Unit. There are currently 77 Conviction Review Units across the United States, from Arizona to Texas, Philadelphia to New York and a staggering 16 of those are in California alone. If Governor Evers is committed to his criminal justice reform platform but political timidity prevents him from offering commutation, then why not place the accountability for review into the hands of a CRU? Or Evers could simply review Brendan’s clemency petition on merit because innocence matters right?
As Myon Burrell burst into tears at hearing of his commutation, Governor Walz said, “It’s clear to me that you have the power to make a difference.” And he does, as all those wrongfully convicted as children do. There are stories of redemption waiting to be written and tales of innocence to be told. And there is a story about a boy. His name is Brendan Dassey. He was expected home March 1st 2006. His mother waits still.