Judge lowers bail, sets new trial date for Michael Hansen in death of infant daughter

Mike Hansen
Lawyers with the Innocence Project of Minnesota are hopeful Mike Hansen can be released on bail while his case is retried.
Innocence Project

Douglas County District Court Judge Ann Carrott has lowered the bail for a man convicted of killing his infant daughter.

Michael Hansen was granted a new trial last month based on new evidence presented by attorneys with the Innocence Project of Minnesota. The trial is scheduled for October.

The new bail is $150,000 with court-imposed conditions of release, down from an earlier bail of $250,000. The family would need to raise $15,000, and it's not clear whether they can afford it.

"It's certainly more attainable than $250,000," Bridget Sabo, Hansen's attorney, said. "We're grateful for that."

A jury in May 2004 found Hansen, 34, guilty of second-degree murder in Avryonna Hansen's death. The original jury heard testimony from Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee, who ruled the death a homicide after he found the three-month-old baby suffered a skull fracture before she died. Hansen was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Hansen's lawyer said she's confident the conviction will be overturned, based on an independent review that found the baby likely died of accidental suffocation in her sleep. Attorney Bridget Sabo said Hansen, who has two other children, has always maintained his innocence.

"The thing that matters the most to Mike is clearing his name," Sabo said. "He would have never hurt his infant daughter, and the idea that he might ... have damaged his relationship with his other two daughters just breaks his heart."

DISPUTE OVER THE CAUSE OF DEATH

A review of the medical examiner's report, funded by the Innocence Project, came to a different conclusion about how Avryonna died. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate people it believes have been wrongly convicted, asked three forensic pathologists, an emergency room physician, and an expert on abusive head trauma in infants to look at the case.

The reviewers, who testified at court hearings earlier this year, argued the baby's skull fracture occurred several days before she died. They said the autopsy showed that the skull fracture did not result in any brain trauma and could not have caused the baby's death.

Defense attorneys said the injury most likely occurred when Avryonna fell out of a shopping cart during a trip to Wal-Mart with her mother several days before she died. The mother reported the accident to authorities after the baby died.

She said her daughter was in her car seat inside the shopping cart when the seat flipped over and landed on its side on the floor. She told authorities that her daughter did not appear to be injured.

The reviewers said the evidence indicates that Avryonna died due to accidental suffocation, which occurred while she was sleeping. On the night of the death, Hansen put Avryonna to sleep on her stomach on a futon with her 3-year old sister, surrounded by pillows and blankets, according to court records. He then lay down next to the baby and fell asleep.

When he woke up the next morning, he found Avryonna was unresponsive. Paramedics transported the infant to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

"He was trying to do his best to take care of his baby in a situation where he didn't have a crib," Sabo said. "And this looked like a very safe, comfortable sleeping situation, to be sleeping with him with warm blankets and in a comfortable area."

The jury never heard evidence about the sleeping arrangements the night the baby died, Sabo said, and the original defense attorney never suggested it as a cause of death. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner did not respond to requests for comment.

In the years since the Hansen trial, parents have become more aware of the dangers of certain sleeping arrangements. The American Academy of Pediatrics now advises parents to put babies to sleep on their backs. They also warn parents against placing blankets or pillows around the baby's head or allowing the baby to sleep on an adult bed or soft mattress.

JUDGE GRANTS A NEW TRIAL

Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine issued an order on July 12 granting Hansen a new trial based on the evidence of accidental suffocation. The judge noted that the medical examiner who completed the initial autopsy report did not look for signs of accidental suffocation or take note of the baby's sleeping conditions.

Irvine, in a written order, said that in the years since the conviction, "there has been a growing understanding among medical examiners that the cause of many unexpected infant deaths is accidental asphyxiation due to unsafe sleeping conditions."

The new evidence, Irvine wrote, "would probably result in a more favorable outcome at trial."

Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson, in a statement released July 29, called the Hansen trial "a tragic case with a problematic outcome." Larson outlined the arguments presented by the Innocence Project, and noted that he was not the prosecutor in the original trial.

"While it is complicated, I currently disagree with the defense's interpretation of the evidence based upon my understanding of the facts," he wrote. "But I certainly know better than to solely rely on my medical knowledge, or the defense's expert witnesses' opinions. So I am in the process of gathering information."

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