MPR speaks with the executive director of The Innocence Project of Minnesota

Joking with nephew
With his mother Debra Meyer walking with him, Michael Hansen, left, jokes with his nephew Brandon Moats, 14, after Hansen was released from the Douglas County Jail in Alexandria, Minn. Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011. Hansen has been incarcerated for six years after being convicted of killing his daughter.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Innocence Project of Minnesota has been around for nearly a decade, but it's representation of Michael Hansen, a man convicted of killing his infant daughter, marks the first time they've convinced a judge to grant a new trial.

Michael Hansen, 34, was released on bail from the Douglas County Jail on Thursday. District Court Judge Peter Irvine granted a new trial because of evidence the Innocence Project brought forth challenging the medical examiner's testimony. Hansen had been incarcerated for six years, serving a 14-year sentence.

Innocence Project Executive Director Erika Applebaum discussed her organization's efforts with MPR's Tom Crann on Friday.

Tom Crann: The Innocence Project of Minnesota has been around since 2002, but the Hansen case is the first one that you've successfully seen overturned, is that correct?

Erika Appelbaum: Well actually, it's our third case. We had one case where someone was exonerated about two years ago. We had a second case where we had someone released from prison, and this is actually our third case, but it will be the first one where we have to go to trial.

Crann: Tell me how you go about selecting which cases to investigate and to bring back to court?

Appelbaum: Well, we get about 350 requests a year for our assistance, and the first step is to review the request. We probably only take about 11 percent of the cases into our further investigation stage, and then we have a long process of reviewing the court files, re-investigating the cases, and at various times, we close additional cases. Probably only 2 percent move further down the line, but these cases take many years before we even file in a court.

Crann: Will you be looking into more of these wrongful death cases involving children? Because, I understand around the country there has been some pretty prominent high-profile reporting about some of the evidence used in these cases has been found in different places to actually exonerate the people who'd been previously convicted.

Appelbaum: It really just depends who writes to us. We look at both DNA and non-DNA cases, so if we have the resources, we will look at the case.

Crann: You mentioned DNA cases. The first we heard about the Innocence Project of Minnesota was because of a grant from the Justice Department that gave you money to look into DNA cases. You're still doing that. Tell us how that works.

Appelbaum: Well, we received a grant from the Department of Justice. We're currently working with partners across the state looking at 14,000 cases where people were convicted, and we're trying to go back on these old cases that weren't subjected to DNA testing to see what evidence still exists to see if we can find the evidence and then test it and hopefully see more innocent people who are in prison.

Crann: When you look at the cases that you've looked into and the total number of cases here in Minnesota and convictions, what can you say about Minnesota's justice system here?

Appelbaum: I think Minnesota is really a model for the rest of the country. This grant, we're working with people who we typically are fighting with. We're working with our adversaries. We're working with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. We are working with the county attorneys. We're working with the Board of Public Defense.

These are all groups that don't normally work collaboratively, and I think that's really helped the process. We've been able to review a number of cases with cooperation, and it's made it so much easier... None of us want to have an innocent person in prison. So everyone's working really hard together to collaborate to make sure that that's not the case.

Crann: How much of a problem would you say wrongful convictions are here in Minnesota?

Appelbaum: I think it's small, but I think what you have to remember for innocent person in prison, that means that the true perpetrator is still out on the streets, able to commit more crimes. So even if there's only a few, if you look at our prison population and just take a small percentage, the number could be pretty high. I mean to me, what if it was you, Tom? If you were innocent for a crime and you were in prison, you would think that only one innocent person would be too many.

Crann: But that said, you would say the situation here in Minnesota is, in terms of numbers, is not alarming to you?

Appelbaum: Well, it's alarming to me if one innocent person is in prison. I don't think we have the problems that the rest of the country has. I think we work well together. Our prosecutors are focused on getting the right person. We have good investigators. We have a good crime lab, but there are mistakes and that's what we're looking for. We're looking for those needles in the haystack.

Crann: The situation with Mike Hansen in Alexandria, who is free on bail, do you see that case fitting into a larger pattern across the country of mistakes being made in forensics when it comes to these wrongful child death cases?

Appelbaum: I do, because in this case we have a medical examiner who the judge found to have given false testimony. I mean the medical examiner got this case wrong, and that's what's happening across the country. I don't think that's that unusual.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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