Attorney General Ellison announces Conviction Review Unit Advisory Board

16 members include former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, national criminal-justice experts, Hennepin and Ramsey County Attorneys, community activists

January 21, 2021 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today announced the 16 members of the Advisory Board of Minnesota’s first-ever Minnesota Conviction Review Unit (CRU). The Advisory Board is comprised of leading criminal-justice experts, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson; Mark Osler, the chair of the independent panel that reviewed the case of Myon Burrell; and former Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond. The Advisory Board also includes Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who supported the application for the federal funding that created the unit. 

In October 2020, Attorney General Ellison and the then-Innocence Project of Minnesota (now the Great North Innocence Project) announced that the Innocence Project had received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the creation of a Conviction Review Unit in the Attorney General’s office. 

To start, the CRU Advisory Board will advise the Attorney General on the establishment, functioning, and hiring of the unit. On an ongoing basis, it will advise on national best practices and evolving issues related to wrongful convictions and sentencing, and make policy recommendations. The board’s first steps will be to approve the charter for the Conviction Review Unit, and to make a recommendation to the Attorney General about hiring the unit director. 

“No justice system can be successful without the trust of the public,” said Attorney General Ellison. “By collaborating with community activists, national criminal-justice experts, and prosecutors, we are striving for a more perfect system. I look forward to working with the board members to fulfill the mission of the CRU and thank them for their pursuit of justice.” 

The members of the Advisory Board are:  

Paul Anderson became Chief Judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 1992. In 1994, Governor Arne Carlson appointed him an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, where served until 2013. While on the Court he was an active member of the Race Bias Elimination Committee and the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch, the Criminal Rules Committee, as well as several other assignments. He has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. 

Tamara Cabán-Ramirez has a solo law practice of 15 years that focuses on criminal defense and immigration law. Ms. Cabán-Ramirez is a past president of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association (MHBA) and currently serves on its Judicial Endorsement Committee. She also serves as Deputy Regional President of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), co-chair of the Special Committee on Puerto Rico, and the ImmiGRANT Defense Fund Task Force.  

John Choi was sworn in as the first Korean-American chief prosecutor in the country in 2011. Since taking office, John has become a state and national leader in progressive justice reform, working with public officials and impacted communities to reimagine justice and the role of prosecutors. County Attorney Choi is past president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. He previous served as Saint Paul City Attorney from 2006–10 and spent a decade in private practice.  

Elizer Darris is the organizer in charge of the ACLU of Minnesota’s Smart Justice Campaign. As a juvenile, he was sentenced to life in prison, but he studied in prison and worked with his state-appointed counsel to get his life sentence reversed on appeal. Upon his release, Mr. Darris became a business owner, consultant, educator, community organizer, youth mentor, and motivational speaker. He served on the 2019 statewide Working Group empaneled by the State Attorney General and Commissioner of Public Safety that focused on creating and implementing strategies to reduce law enforcement deadly force encounters. Mr. Darris serves on multiple boards and was recently appointed by Governor Tim Walz to the State Board of Public Defense. 

Mike Freeman is the elected Hennepin County Attorney. He has served in this position for more than two decades, from 1991–99 and from 2007 to the present. Prior to becoming the chief executive of the largest public law office in Minnesota, Freeman was a member of the Minnesota State Senate from 1983–91. During his time as the Hennepin County Attorney, Freeman has implemented numerous progressive reforms to ensure the criminal-justice system is fair to all people the office serves.  

Fred Friedman has been an attorney since 1972, a public defender in Minnesota since 1973, and a professor since 1975. He served as the Chief Public Defender of Minnesota’s Sixth District (northeastern Minnesota) from the spring of 1986 until April 2014 and is Minnesota’s longest serving chief defender in history. He is the chair of the National Association of Public Defenders (NAPD) Strike Force Committee that upon request advises and assists public defenders who view themselves or their organization in political or legal crisis. In addition to an attorney and career public defender, Mr. Friedman is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth where he has taught since 1975.  

Nadine Graves is a public defender who has represented hundreds of people charged with criminal offenses ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. She currently represents parents subjected to child-protection cases.  Outside of the courtroom, Ms. Graves is the board chair of a non-profit, We Are Criminals, an organization dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be “criminal.” 

Sara Jones is the executive director of the Great North Innocence Project (GN-IP). Ms. Jones has been ED of  GN-IP for two years and is responsible for the strategic and financial leadership of the organization, among other responsibilities. Her background includes six years of work in litigation of civil constitutional claims as an Assistant Minnesota Attorney General and four years in private practice. In addition, Ms. Jones has nineteen years of experience as a development and nonprofit leader and, since joining GN-IP, has worked on collaborative policy initiatives related to wrongful convictions. 

John Littlewolf is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. He began his law enforcement career with the White Earth Tribal Police in 2009 as a Patrol Officer and later the Leech Lake Tribal Police in 2011. During his career his duties have included Patrol Officer, Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Investigator, and Criminal Investigator. He is currently a Conservation Officer with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. His dissertation, Police Officer Trauma in Rural Minnesota: A Narrative Study, was published in January 2020. Currently he is the Minnesota Indian Affairs representative on the Minnesota Violent Crimes Coordinating Council (V.C.C.C.) and is also their Community Engagement and Prevention Committee Chair. Mr. Littlewolf also serves as a Board Member for the American Indian Family Center in Saint Paul. 

Laura Nirider is a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.  There, she co-directs the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has exonerated more than 40 innocent people. Her clients have included Brendan Dassey, whose case was profiled in the Netflix Global series “Making a Murderer,” and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, whose case was profiled in the documentary “West of Memphis.” She recently served as an advisor to a national panel of independent experts that reviewed the Minnesota case of Myon Burrell.  

Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. A former federal prosecutor, he later won the case of Spears v. United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Court ruling that judges could categorically reject a mandatory 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines. In 2020, Osler served as chair of the independent panel that reviewed the case of Myon Burrell and recommended that Burrell receive a commutation of sentence.  

Caroline Palmer is the Safe Harbor Director at the Minnesota Department of Health. Her focus is on building cross-disciplinary collaboration across government and private sectors on behalf of survivors of sex and labor trafficking. She is responsible for overseeing several aspects of Safe Harbor program management including policy development, training, grant administration, and data/evaluation. Prior to joining MDH in 2018, Palmer was the Policy and Legal Affairs Manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault for over a decade. 

Leslie Redmond is a public speaker, civil-rights advocate, and strategic problem-solver. At the age of 25, she became the youngest president of Minneapolis NAACP. She is also the founder of the Don’t Complain, Activate brand. She recently received her JD/MBA from the University of St Thomas and is a licensed attorney. Leslie previously served as a policy research associate at the Minnesota Attorney General Office. 

Bishop Harding Smith is the founder of Minnesota Acts Now, a multifaceted, collective, non-profit organization that is focused on eradicating gun violence, homelessness, and aiming to structure today's youth into tomorrow's leaders. Bishop Harding Smith also seeks to enrich the community's lives through religion. He is the current Bishop of The Spiritual Church of God.

Karin Sonneman was first elected to the office of Winona County Attorney in November 2010. Prior to her election, Karin was a Third Judicial District Assistant Public Defender for 20 years and was in the private practice of law for 15 of those years with her husband, Karl Sonneman. Among her many professional activities, Karin has served on the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) since its inception in 2007 and is currently the chairperson of the CJCC, having held that position since 2015. Karin also serves on the Minnesota County Attorneys Association Board of Directors. 

F. Clayton Tyler is the founder of the firm, F. Clayton Tyler, P.A. He previously chaired the Criminal Justice Act panel, which consists of over 120 attorneys who accept appointment to represent federal public-defender eligible defendants. He is also a past president of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL). F. Clayton Tyler is highly involved in the community, having been chair of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, chair of the Minneapolis Urban League, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, and a member of the University of Minnesota Diversity Task Force.