Michael Hansen prepares for new trial in daughter's death

Released from jail
Michael Hansen greets his mother Debra Meyer with a hug 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. With help from the Innocence Project, Hansen was granted a new trial and was released on bail.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A new jury will assemble in an Alexandria courtroom in late September to decide whether to convict Michael Hansen of killing his infant daughter.

They'll hear from the medical examiner who declared the death a homicide at the original trial five years ago and from medical examiners who disagree with that conclusion. That's the part of the case that's attracted the most attention.

But jurors will also hear the story of an infant girl whose parents decided not to take her to see a doctor after she fell out of a shopping cart and whose father stayed up late drinking with a friend and didn't wake up to find her dead until 11 a.m. the next morning.

That's the story of the life and death of Avryonna Hansen, gleaned from court testimony, photos, and evidence that led a jury five years ago to find her father guilty of murder.

Avryonna Hansen fell asleep on May 1, 2004 on a futon in a basement bedroom, with a Sesame Street pillow, sheets, and blankets. The room was full of toys - a Tigger stuffed animal, an infant swing, a pink teddy bear. The next morning, she was dead.

Her father, Michael Hansen, told police he put his four-month-old daughter to sleep on a futon with her 3-year-old sister Starr in the basement of a friend's house where he was staying.

Hansen was watching the girls while his girlfriend Amanda Schulke was at work. The couple had moved to Alexandria recently, but lived separately - Schulke at her mother's home and Hansen in the basement of a friend's home nearby. The two girls were staying with their father for the weekend when Avryonna died. On Saturday afternoon, Hansen left his daughters with babysitters so he could go fishing with a friend for a few hours. On the way home, the two friends stopped at a liquor store and picked up a 12-pack of beer and a bottle of root beer schnapps. Hansen would later lie to police about whether he'd been drinking that night.

Hansen told police he fell asleep beside his daughters, and woke up briefly in the night to give Avryonna a bottle. He told police he put the baby back to sleep on her stomach. He woke up at about 11 a.m., he said, to find his baby daughter cold and lifeless. He grabbed Avryonna and headed up the stairs yelling at his friends to call 911. "Something is wrong with Avry," he said. "Something happened to Avry."

His fishing buddy, Jesse Fredrick, was upstairs brushing his teeth when he heard Hansen screaming. "I could see ... Mike holding Avry in his arms and rocking her back and forth, saying her name over and over, and I could see how pale she was," Fredrick told jurors at Hansen's first trial in 2006.

Paramedics arrived, but it was too late. Avryonna was taken to Douglas County Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The investigation

State and federal guidelines recommend that medical examiners perform an autopsy when an infant dies unexpectedly. The day Avryonna died, a hospital pediatrician contacted Douglas County Medical Examiner Mark Spanbauer and said he needed to investigate a baby who may have died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Spanbauer performed the first autopsy the next day. Right away, he noticed the baby had a massive skull fracture. As he sawed through the skull to remove the brain for further study, the skull crumbled. He would later testify that he knew immediately the death was a homicide. Spanbauer did not visit the home where Avryonna died.

Local police and the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension decided to send Avryonna's body to Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee for a second autopsy. The baby's body arrived separately from her organs. Part of her skull was transported in a separate container.

As part of his investigation, McGee consulted with law enforcement officials for information about the scene. They shared photographs of the basement where Hansen and the children were sleeping. The photographs showed that the sleeping conditions violated national recommendations for how to prevent unexpected infant deaths.

Those recommendations say a baby should not sleep in an adult bed, should not sleep with other children or adults, should not sleep near loose pillows or blankets, and should not be placed to sleep on the stomach.

Law enforcement officials also shared information about an accident at a Wal-Mart parking lot six days before Avryonna died.

After the baby died, Avryonna's mother, Amanda Schulke, told police about the accident. She said Avryonna was strapped into a car seat on top of a shopping cart when the cart hit a bump in the parking lot.

The car seat, with Avyronna strapped inside, tumbled three feet to the ground and landed upside down. Avryonna started crying, her mother told police, but didn't appear injured.

Schulke did not take her daughter to a doctor, but rather, according to Hansen, drove to the home where Hansen was staying, left Avryonna in the car, and ran in to tell everyone there that she almost killed her baby. Hansen told the jury he urged his girlfriend to take Avryonna to a doctor, but he admitted that he did not go out to the car to check on his daughter.

McGee ruled the death a homicide, and he told jurors that Avryonna died of closed head trauma. He testified that the injuries couldn't have been caused by the shopping cart accident. (Read: Ramsey County medical examiner's murder testimony prompts investigation.)

Questioning a father

At trial, Hansen admitted he lied to investigators when he said he had not been drinking that night. He also admitted he lied about what time he went to bed and told his friends to lie about whether they were drinking. Prosecutors focused on Hansen's lies, and Hansen told jurors he didn't remember much of what he told investigators.

"I know I lied about the drinking and the time I went to bed, so I, when it comes to all the statements I have, which are probably like what, maybe four to seven statements or something, at least four, I don't remember every, I, I don't remember," Hansen said under cross-examination. Prosecutors also noted that Hansen kept calling the Douglas County Medical Examiner's office to find out how Avryonna had died. To prosecutors, those phone calls were evidence that Hansen was nervous about getting caught.

Hansen told jurors he was upset when he learned that Avryonna's body would undergo another autopsy.

"To be brutally honest, I wasn't very happy about it because one person had just cut open my daughter, and now they're going to send her to somebody else to do it," he said.

Amanda Schulke, the baby's mother, told authorities that she began to suspect that Hansen killed their baby about a month after the baby died. One day, while on a paddleboat with Hansen, she asked him if he had harmed Avryonna. Hansen said no, but Schulke said his expression was, "like he wanted me to believe him and like he knew that I didn't believe him," court records said. Schulke said she was afraid.

"She decided to leave the lake, the cabin, and their relationship," the prosecution said. "And she did."

The couple broke up in June. Hansen was indicted in October. Schulke testified for the prosecution. A jury found Hansen guilty of second-degree murder in February 2006. He was sentenced to 14.5 years in prison.

A new look at the case

Hansen was sent to a medium-level security prison in Moose Lake, leaving behind his family and a job as a metal stamping plant.

At Moose Lake, he enrolled in prison classes in anger management, parenting, and critical thinking. He also completed a program to become a licensed apprentice barber. A corrections worker described Hansen as a "positive role model" in a letter to a Douglas County judge.

Hansen maintained that he didn't kill his daughter. He wrote to the Innocence Project for help, and they agreed to represent him in his efforts to have his conviction overturned.

The Innocence Project asked three forensic pathologists, an emergency room physician, and an expert on infant abusive head trauma to look at the case. They disagreed with McGee's findings. There wasn't enough evidence to determine how the baby died, they said, and the available evidence points to accidental suffocation as a likely cause of death.

In July, Judge Irvine ordered a new trial, citing his finding that McGee provided false testimony in the first trial and citing new evidence on accidental suffocation of infants.

Hansen was released on bail in August. His mother, stepfather, sister, and other family members gathered outside the Douglas County Jail to greet him.

Avryonna's mother was not there. The couple's other child, Starr, is now 10 years old. She grew up without a sister and without a father. Hansen said he plans to visit her while he's out on bail. A judge agreed to allow supervised visitation.

"I just want to be with my family," Hansen said. "I just want to sit by the lake and have one of my mom's home-cooked dinners. That's what I look forward to."

Hansen's new trial begins Sept. 26.

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