Court drops charges against man awaiting retrial for daughter's murder

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 had 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. His new trial had been scheduled to begin Sept. 26, but the Douglas County Attorney's Office has determined that the State no longer believes that it can prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Prosecutors have dropped charges against Michael Hansen, an Alexandria man who served six years in prison for the murder of his infant daughter.

Hansen was released from prison in August and had been preparing for a new trial, which was granted after Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine found that Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee gave "false or incorrect testimony" in the first trial.

In a statement Friday, the Douglas County Attorney's Office said, "After careful consideration, the State no longer believes that it can prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Defense attorney Bridget Sabo called Hansen to deliver the news late Friday afternoon. "He was beside himself," she said. "He was very, very happy."

Hansen had been serving a 14.5 year prison sentence after a jury found him guilty in 2006 of second-degree murder in the death of his four-month-old daughter Avryonna Hansen. The baby died in May 2004 while in the care of her father.

The case later came to the attention of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a group that works on behalf of people it believes have been wrongfully convicted. Sabo, an attorney with the Innocence Project, argued that Hansen was found guilty in part because of the medical examiner's flawed testimony.

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At the original trial, McGee told the jury that Avryonna Hansen died of a skull fracture that could have been caused by being thrown against the concrete wall or floor in the basement room where she was sleeping on a futon with her father and three-year-old sister. He ruled the death a homicide.

But five doctors who agreed to review the case at the request of the Innocence Project disagreed with McGee on the cause and manner of death. They found the skull fracture showed signs of healing and could have been caused by an accident six days before the baby died, when the infant fell out of a shopping cart in a parking lot. They found it's more likely that Avryonna accidentally suffocated in her sleep, and noted that the sleeping arrangements violated several recommendations for safe infant sleep.

The motion to dismiss the indictment focused on the medical examiner's work on the case. It noted that McGee was assigned the case after an initial autopsy by a Douglas County medical examiner. McGee's exam, it said, "was forensically compromised because Avry had already been embalmed following the initial autopsy."

It also noted the testimony of defense experts who disagreed with McGee's findings.

"The State declines to adopt the Defense's position on these issues," the motion said. "However, such alternate explanations of the cause of Avry's death within the context of a very circumstantial and forensically compromised case deprives the State of the ability to prove the Defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement released last month, he said he was looking into the case, and noted that he was not the original prosecutor.

McGee did not respond to calls and email on Friday. He has previously declined to comment on the Hansen case.

McGee has served as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner for 26 years and serves as the medical examiner for 14 other counties. McGee is a private contractor, not a county employee, and he also takes cases, like the death of Avryonna Hansen, from around the state.

In response to an MPR News report earlier this month, Ramsey County completed a one-day administrative review of the Medical Examiner's Office. The county review did not look at McGee's work on the Hansen case. It found that McGee was in compliance with state laws and the terms of his contract with the county.