Review: Medical examiner should have requested expert help in murder case

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi reads a statement about the results of a report investigating the role of chief medical examiner Dr. Michael McGee in the Michael Hansen case Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. At left is retired Ramsey County prosecutor Jeanne Schleh, who reviewed the case.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

An extensive review of Ramsey County chief medical examiner Michael McGee's handling of a rural murder case has found no serious concerns with the credibility of the long-time medical examiner, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Thursday.

Choi ordered the review in September, prompted by a Douglas County judge's finding that McGee gave "false or incorrect" testimony that helped convince jurors to convict Michael Hansen for the murder of his infant daughter in 2006.

The conviction was overturned in July, and the Douglas County prosecutor dismissed all charges in September, calling the case "forensically compromised." Hansen was released from prison after serving 6 years of a 14-and-a-half year sentence. The case raised questions about the quality of McGee's work and the lack of oversight of medical examiners in the state.

"We do have confidence in Dr. McGee to continue to serve as the medical examiner in Ramsey County," Choi said Thursday.

However, Choi said he agreed with the decision of the Douglas County prosecutor not to retry the case and to allow Hansen to go free. Choi said McGee should have consulted a doctor experienced at treating infants with skull fractures. He also said law enforcement should have investigated the infant's sleeping area for any risks for suffocation.

Letter from Ramsey County Attorney's office
Review: County Assessment of Medical Testimony

In response to the review, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office has asked McGee to consult clinicians on future cases when needed and to attend all statewide medical examiner conferences. McGee agreed to do so, Choi said.

"No one is infallible and experts can make mistakes, and the important thing is that if that does occur, we want to learn from the experience for future cases," Choi said. "From my perspective, the facts in the Hansen case are extremely unusual and I don't believe likely would ever be repeated."

Choi said his office also looked at all homicide cases in which McGee was an expert witness dating back to 2000. An earlier review looked at the cases over the previous five years. Choi said the review did not find any problems with McGee's work.

McGee has served as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner since 1985. He also serves as the medical examiner for at least 12 other counties, and performs autopsies for other counties when requested. No one supervises his day-to-day work.

McGee defended his handling of the Hansen case in a statement released Thursday.

"We stand by the work of this office and the investigators involved in the case as well as the forensic testimony that was provided," the statement said. "We thank the County Attorney for his review of the case and value our continuing working relationship with that office. We will give strong consideration to the recommendations included in the County Attorney's report."

Hansen, reached Thursday, said he was upset that McGee continues to serve as the medical examiner, despite how he handled his case. He said Ramsey County prosecutors should apologize to him and his family on behalf of the medical examiner.

"If they're the ones that are letting him keep his job and he isn't apologizing, well then they should apologize for him, especially if they're saying that he should have done this and he should have done that," Hansen said.

Hansen said he has struggled to cope with the loss of his daughter and the six years he spent in prison. Hansen said he is considering filing a lawsuit against McGee for how the case was handled.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office does not appoint the medical examiner or supervise his work. Those duties are the responsibility of the Ramsey County manager and the county board. The board has the authority to renew or terminate McGee's contract, which is set to expire at the end of 2014.

The Ramsey County manager does not plan to take any action or make any changes based on the review's findings. In a statement released Thursday, the county manager said, "Ramsey County appreciates the review by the County Attorney and also reiterates its confidence in the work of the Ramsey County Medical Examiner."

THE HANSEN CASE

McGee performed the autopsy of Hansen's infant daughter, Avryonna, and ruled the death a homicide. He told jurors Avryonna died of blunt force head trauma. The injury, he said, could have been caused by someone throwing her against a concrete wall.

At trial, defense attorneys argued that Avryonna may have been seriously injured several days before she died when she fell out of a shopping cart in a Walmart parking lot. McGee disagreed. He told jurors that the shopping cart accident could not have caused Avryonna's death. He said that an infant with the types of injury he found during the autopsy would not have survived for more than a few hours.

Hansen denied killing his daughter. He told jurors he placed Avryonna to sleep with her three-year-old sister on a futon and fell asleep next to them. When Hansen woke up, Avryonna was dead. Defense attorneys with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, who represented Hansen in his request for a new trial, said Avryonna most likely accidentally suffocated in her sleep.

They asked two medical examiners and three other doctors to review the case. They all disagreed with McGee's findings and found it was more likely the baby accidentally suffocated in her sleep.

In July 2011, Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine ordered a new trial, based on the disputed testimony.

"Dr. McGee's testimony regarding the symptoms and clinical course of a child with a skull fracture like Avryonna's and Avryonna's shopping cart fall was false or incorrect," Irvine wrote. "The jury might have reached a different conclusion in Mr. Hansen's case without this testimony."

A DETAILED REVIEW

The review, conducted by retired Ramsey County prosecutor Jeanne Schleh, did not reach any conclusion about how Hansen's daughter died.

It found that McGee was "forensically disadvantaged" because he did not perform the original autopsy and law enforcement did not consider whether unsafe sleeping conditions may have caused the death. It also found that McGee did not have the opportunity to address concerns raised by the defense's forensic expert at the original trial.

The review took issue with Judge Irvine's decision to call McGee's testimony "false or incorrect."

The review said, "While McGee could well be wrong in opinions about the symptoms and clinical course of a child with a skull fracture like (Avryonna's) and the shopping cart incident — and certainly the state was outgunned and overwhelmed by contrary testimonies on these points — the implication of false testimony is, under all of these circumstances, unfair."

It concludes by saying, "The case leaves many unanswered questions, including a definitive answer to what caused (Avryonna's) death."

COUNTY MANAGER: 'I THINK THE LESS I KNOW ABOUT THE SPECIFICS, THE BETTER'

Both the Ramsey County Manager and the Ramsey County Board have previously declined to investigate the Hansen case.

Kleinschmidt, the county manager, has previously told MPR News that she does not need to investigate whether McGee mishandled the case because it occurred outside of Ramsey County.

An internal email message from Kleinschmidt to McGee's chief death investigator shows that the county manager did not want to know any details about the Hansen case. MPR News obtained the email after filing a Data Practices Request with Ramsey County.

The email was sent on Aug. 18, 2011. By that time, the Douglas County judge had already ruled that McGee gave "false or incorrect" testimony at the Hansen trial. It references an MPR News interview with Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. It was copied to McGee, deputy manager Heather Worthington, and county spokesman Art Coulson.

"As predicted, Commissioner Reinhardt was questioned about the Innocence Project. She did not comment of course and at this point, I think the less I know about the specifics, the better," Kleinschmidt wrote.

Kleinschmidt did not return a call and email seeking comment Thursday.

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