County attorney to review role of medical examiner in case of baby's death

Ramsey County medical examiner
Dr. Michael McGee, who has been working as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner for 26 years, was recently found to have given false testimony in a Douglas County murder trial.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office is reviewing the role of chief medical examiner Michael McGee in a criminal case involving an Alexandria man who was released from prison after being convicted of killing his infant daughter.

The Douglas County judge overturned the conviction after he found that McGee gave "false or incorrect" testimony at the trial.

Michael Hansen was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2006 for the death of his infant daughter Avryonna. McGee performed the final autopsy and ruled the death a homicide. He said Avryonna died of blunt force head trauma. Last year, five doctors, including two medical examiners, reviewed the case at the request of Hansen's defense attorneys. They disagreed with McGee's findings and said it's more likely the baby accidentally suffocated in her sleep.

The case raised questions about the quality of McGee's work and the lack of oversight of medical examiners in the state. McGee has served as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner since 1985. He also serves as the medical examiner for at least 14 other counties, and performs autopsies for other counties when requested. No one supervises his day-to-day work.

"We're reviewing the Douglas County case," Paul Gustafson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's office, said Thursday.

Gustafson said the review will look over the entire case, including McGee's findings and testimony. He noted that the Ramsey County Attorney's office does not appoint the medical examiner or supervise the work. Those duties are the responsibility of the Ramsey County manager and the county board, he said. Gustafson declined to comment further.

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McGee did not immediately return a call for comment.

Hansen had served six years of a 14 and-a-half year prison sentence when he was released from prison on bail in August to prepare for a new trial.

Last week, Douglas County prosecutor Chad Larson dropped all charges against Hansen, calling the case "forensically compromised."

The Ramsey County Attorney's office had declined to comment on the case while it was still pending. In August, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi released a statement indicating he may decide to review the case "to ensure that justice and public safety are served."

Choi noted at the time that prosecutors have a "duty to inquire further" when a medical examiner's work is questioned.

"While I believe that we should not rush to judgment about the difficult work of medical examiners, which often times is challenged by differing opinions offered by competing medical experts at trial, we will also not hesitate to initiate a review of that work when it is warranted by specific circumstances," the Aug. 30 statement said.

McGee is a private contractor, not a county employee. Ramsey County manager Julie Kleinschmidt negotiates his contract, and the Ramsey County board approves it.

In response to an MPR News report about McGee's handling of the Hansen case, Ramsey County deputy manager Heather Worthington, whose office is separate from the county attorney, conducted a one-day administrative review of the medical examiner on Sept. 6.

The review did not include any investigation of McGee's work on the Hansen case or any other case. Ramsey County provided a copy of the review to MPR News in response to Data Practices request.

The review found McGee was in compliance with his contract and state law. It notes that McGee is a board-certified forensic pathologist and his office has accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

"The administrative review did not include any legal or technical review of Dr. McGee's work," Worthington said in a memo that summarized the review's findings. "His work is subject to regular review of the courts, and, when called for, the County Attorney (as cited in the MPR article)."

The Ramsey County board has the authority to renew or terminate McGee's contract, which is set to expire at the end of 2014.