Innocence Project works for release of Minn. convicted child murderer

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An Alexandria man convicted of murder for killing his infant daughter remains in prison while a judge continues to consider his release. Lawyers with the Innocence Project of Minnesota are hopeful he can be released on bail while the case is retried.

Michael Hansen has been in prison for six years after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his three-month-old daughter, Avryonna Hansen, in May 2004. Two medical examiners originally found that his daughter suffered a skull fracture before she died, and the death was ruled a homicide. Hansen was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

But Innocence Project attorney Julie Jonas said an independent review found the skull fracture occurred several days before Avryonna died and could not have caused her death. She said Avryonna most likely died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Hansen, who contacted the Innocence Project two years ago for legal help, was granted a new trial earlier this month, his attorneys said. Jonas said the conviction has harmed Hansen's family.

"Of course, his two other daughters think he's been in prison for the last six years for murdering their sister," she said. "And it's ripped the family apart."

Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson did not respond to MPR News requests for comment.

The effort to exonerate Hansen is taking place amidst mounting criticism of the prosecution of infant and child deaths. A recent investigation by NPR, ProPublica, and PBS Frontline found "medical examiners and coroners have repeatedly mishandled cases of infant and child deaths, helping to put innocent people behind bars." The investigation highlighted several cases that were overturned or dismissed based on flawed or biased work by forensic pathologists.

Innocence Project attorneys representing Hansen don't dispute that his daughter's skull was fractured. However, they said evidence shows the fracture occurred six days before Avryonna's death when the infant was with her mother in a Wal-Mart parking lot. They said the baby flipped out of a shopping cart while still in her car seat, and the seat landed on its side on the pavement. The girl's mother told the court she didn't think her daughter was injured by the fall.

Jonas said three independent medical examiners and two physicians reviewed the case and found the fracture was healing at the time of the Avryonna's death and there were no signs of brain trauma. None of the medical examiners believed the death was a homicide, she said. Hansen's attorneys presented the new evidence at several hearings this spring.

"Frankly, we were able to prove in a series of hearings that the medical examiner that called this a homicide was simply wrong," Jonas said.

A hearing took place Wednesday afternoon at the Douglas County Courthouse where the judge declined to set bail for Hansen, saying she needed more time to review the case before determining a bail amount . A new hearing could be scheduled as early as next week, and Hansen could be released on bail while the case is retried.

Court records trace accounts of what happened. On May 1, 2004, Hansen was taking care of his infant daughter while the daughter's mother was at work. Then Hansen left the child with a babysitter so he could go fishing with a friend.

He returned home sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. and spent the rest of the evening drinking with a friend at the house, according to court records.

Hansen told authorities he went downstairs to check on his infant daughter at least twice that night. Two of his friends alleged that Hansen later told them to lie to police about how much they drank and what time they went to bed.

Court records indicate that Hansen went to bed at about 4 a.m. At about 11 a.m. the next morning, Hansen yelled at his housemates that something was wrong with his daughter. He was holding the girl in his arms and asked them to call 911. Paramedics arrived and rushed the infant to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

One of the paramedics who responded to the 911 call testified that when she tried to talk to Hansen, he swore and yelled. The paramedic, Monica Stumpf, testified that Hansen was "borderline" defensive, "but also blamed himself, saying that he should never have laid the baby on her stomach," according to appellate court documents.

A police officer who drove Hansen to the emergency room testified that Hansen was "loud, shouting, swearing, cursing," and "visibly angry and explosive at times." The officer also said that although he has seen people exhibit a variety of behavior when they were experiencing grief, he had "never seen anything exactly like this."

An autopsy was conducted by the Douglas County medical examiner, who found that the infant had suffered a major skull fracture. A second autopsy conducted by the Ramsey County medical examiner found the infant had a fractured skull and died as a result of a closed head trauma.

The medical examiner deemed the death a "probable homicide" and said the injury was too severe to have been caused by an accidental fall. He also testified that the car seat would've prevented any serious injury from the baby's fall in the Wal-Mart parking lot and that even if the injury occurred then, it was too massive to go unnoticed for six days.

Jurors also heard testimony from a convicted drug dealer who shared a cell with Hansen after he was arrested. The cellmate, David Ewing, said Hansen told him he needed to talk about the case or he was "going to go crazy." Ewing said it was hard to tell what Hansen was saying, because he was crying so hard, but said Hansen indicated he killed his daughter. In exchange for his testimony, court records said, Ewing did not serve any prison time for the charges he was facing.

Hansen testified at his trial. He said that his daughter woke up sometime between 4 and 5 a.m. He gave her a bottle and helped her go back to sleep. He then went back to bed. He said that when he woke up later in the morning, he realized the infant was unresponsive.

Hansen said he never talked to his cellmate about the case, and said he believed police put Ewing in his cell to get him to confess.

A forensic pathologist with special training in pediatric forensic pathology testified for the defense at the original trial. She said the girl suffered a skull fracture about a week before her death, and that the injury was already healing by the time the infant died. The forensic pathologist believed the infant either died from the trauma caused by the fall or from an undetermined natural cause.

A jury found Hansen guilty of all charges in February 2006.