In 2000, a Minnesota judge cut an immigrant a break, handing down a 364-day suspended sentence, one day less than what would result in his likely deportation. But the office prosecuting him for welfare fraud fought the judge’s mercy, pushing to add two extra days, and won on appeal.
The prosecutor who headed that office, Amy Klobuchar, parlayed her tough-on-crime reputation into a Senate seat and now a run for the Democratic presidential nomination. But even as she has found some traction in the race, her choices as a prosecutor have led to tough questions on the campaign trail.
During her eight-year tenure as the Hennepin County attorney, the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis, Ms. Klobuchar sought stiffer sentences, tougher plea deals and more trials, and vowed to call out judges for “letting offenders off the hook too easily.”
Those tactics served her well during her political rise, winning support from some conservatives and inoculating her from attacks by Republican opponents. But her record has also come under attack from civil rights activists who say she pursued policies that shored up her support in white suburbs at the cost of unfairly targeting minorities and declining to prosecute police shootings.
After placing third in the New Hampshire primary, where the electorate was overwhelmingly white, Ms. Klobuchar faces a more difficult test in states with a more diverse electorate. She finished sixth in the Nevada caucuses and is polling in the single digits in South Carolina, which votes Saturday and where African-Americans comprise a majority of Democratic voters. Recent national polls have put Ms. Klobuchar’s support among black and Hispanic voters at 1 percent or less.
In recent weeks, the candidate has found herself forced to answer questions about the case of Myon Burrell, whom her office prosecuted in the death of an 11-year-old girl, Tyesha Edwards, in 2002. In her campaigns, Ms. Klobuchar has repeatedly trumpeted her efforts to seek justice for Tyesha, making the case a focus of what she called the most effective commercial in her 2006 Senate race.
A recent investigation by The Biorports raised questions about whether the police and Ms. Klobuchar’s office used a laundry list of dubious tactics in their pursuit of a conviction against Mr. Burrell, who was 16 at the time. The guilty verdict against him was later set aside by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial, where Mr. Burrell was convicted again by Ms. Klobuchar’s successor.
Asked about the case during last week’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Ms. Klobuchar again called for a review of evidence, which she has done several times in recent weeks. She has not addressed any of the specific criticisms of her office’s prosecution of Mr. Burrell, including the use of jailhouse informants, police offering money for hearsay evidence, and a lack of fingerprint or DNA evidence.
In her 2015 autobiography, “The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland,” Ms. Klobuchar wrote that she would usually decide who to charge and what sentences to seek in her office’s biggest and “trickiest” cases. But her campaign did not respond to questions this week about what role she played in the Burrell case. It did not come up in Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina.
On Monday, Mike Freeman, who succeeded Ms. Klobuchar as Hennepin County attorney and won a conviction at Mr. Burrell’s second trial, defended the case as a “solid police investigation and prosecution.” He said that he believed it was “inappropriate and unfair” that the case had become an issue in Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign.
Some of her rivals for the Democratic nomination have also come under sharp criticism for their records on criminal justice, including Michael Bloomberg, who apologized earlier this month for supporting the widely derided stop-and-frisk policy while he was mayor of New York.
Civil rights leaders in Minneapolis say the Burrell case was just one example of how Ms. Klobuchar’s office focused disproportionately on prosecuting African-Americans while declining to bring charges in more than two dozen shootings and other civilian fatalities that occurred during encounters with police officers.
“There is an entire community that suffered under her leadership, and she has refused to accept accountability for the harm that she caused,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Minneapolis N.A.A.C.P.
In a statement, Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign said that as a prosecutor she had also focused on reducing gun violence, including backing measures opposed by the N.R.A.; prosecuting white-collar crimes, including tax evasion and the fibioreportscial exploitation of older people; and working with the Innocence Project to improve interrogations and eyewitness identifications.
Her agenda while in office was similar to many other tough-on-crime prosecutors of the era who also embraced the “broken windows” theory of policing. That theory, now widely criticized for packing jails with people of color, held that cracking down on vandalism and other visible signs of minor crimes would lead to a reduction in more serious offenses.
Jim Appleby, a former Hennepin prosecutor who feuded with Ms. Klobuchar when he represented unionized employees in the office, once criticized her “shameful treatment” of staff members, and suggested she was more interested in “self-promotion” than public safety. But he disputed recent criticism of her record.
Mr. Appleby said he could not recall even a whiff of racial insensitivity or opportunism from Ms. Klobuchar as a prosecutor, and he said she had embraced priorities that were typical for many district attorneys and politicians at the time.
When Ms. Klobuchar ran for Hennepin County attorney in 1998, as a 38-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Minneapolis was in the midst of a horrific stretch of crime. Although the murder rate nationally had begun to decline at the turn of the decade, the number of fatal shootings and other killings had continued to rise in Minneapolis.
The tally did not top out until 1995, when the city, labeled “Murderapolis,” reached a murder rate of 27 per 100,000 people, more than triple the national rate that year. In her campaign, Ms. Klobuchar called for “More Trials, More Convictions,” vowing that her office would make fewer and tougher plea deals and double or triple the number of cases its prosecutors took to juries, seeking tougher sentences.
In her first year alone, almost two-thirds of first-degree drug crimes resulted in prison terms, double the rate of two years earlier. Her prosecutors boosted the number of felons charged with gun possession — which carried a five-year minimum — by a quarter. And they filed felony charges in three-quarters of property cases submitted by the police, a 12 percent increase.
Minnesota has long imprisoned black people at a far higher rate than whites. During Ms. Klobuchar’s tenure, the disparity in Hennepin County narrowed, but African-Americans continued to serve in prison at vastly higher rates.
According to an analysis of data from the Vera Institute of Justice, the longer sentences favored by Ms. Klobuchar helped drive up the number of prison inmates from the county by about one-fifth during her eight years as the chief prosecutor.
Ms. Klobuchar has noted that the prison incarceration rate for African-Americans from Hennepin County fell by 12 percent in that period, but that happened because the number of black people living there rose faster than the number serving time in prison. Still, the incarceration gap remained enormous: When Ms. Klobuchar left office, blacks from the county were locked up in prison at more than 18 times the rate of whites.
At the same time she was ramping up sentences, Ms. Klobuchar was also building a tight relationship with law enforcement, which is common for prosecutors. Some civil rights leaders say that skewed her other priorities, and explains why Ms. Klobuchar did not file charges in more than two-dozen police-involved deaths on her watch. She referred those cases to a grand jury instead, angering relatives of some victims who saw it as a way of avoiding responsibility while keeping the process hidden.
“Prosecute this man, and make that decision yourself, and then be accountable to the people for it,” Tahisha Williams Brewer, the mother of an African-American boy shot by a Minneapolis officer in 2004, urged in a letter to Ms. Klobuchar. “The grand jury is a way of hiding that the prosecutor is not giving the full information of guilt to the grand jury.”
Sending officer-involved shootings to grand juries was common practice for prosecutors at the time. “It was thought that was the best way to handle them in many, many jurisdictions,” Ms. Klobuchar said at last week’s debate. She has said she now believes such decisions should be made by prosecutors.
Bruce Nestor, an immigration lawyer, said the same sort of no-holds-barred approach used by Ms. Klobuchar’s office during the Burrell case was reflected in its prosecution of El Sayed Salim, the immigrant whose 364-day sentence was appealed.
Mr. Salim, who was in the country legally, worked at a Middle Eastern restaurant, but he and his wife also qualified for welfare and food stamps. They had picked up extra part-time work but failed to report those jobs to the local welfare office. That allowed them to bring in $25,000 more in benefits than they were entitled to, prosecutors said.
Mr. Salim said he was confused about disclosing the jobs because he did not speak English very well, but he pleaded guilty to wrongly obtaining public assistance. State sentencing guidelines indicated that he should receive 366 days in prison, which he could avoid if he met terms of an imposed probation.
But the judge opted to knock two days off the sentence, bringing the charge down from a felony to a gross misdemeanor, with the intention of allowing Mr. Salim to avoid “potential deportation.”
Ms. Klobuchar’s office appealed, insisting that the felony sentence be imposed, and eventually won the case in May 2001, but not before one appellate judge argued that the case “never should have been appealed by the state” and stood up for the decision to shave the sentence. “I suggest that kindness and compassion to the unfortunate are the hallmark of an ethical civilization,” he wrote.
The Klobuchar campaign said prosecutors were following state sentencing guidelines as well as State Supreme Court rulings that deportation consequences should not factor into sentencing decisions.
Mr. Salim left the United States later that year, according to a federal official, and there is no record of him ever returning.
Christina Capecchi contributed reporting.