Amid red flags, Ramsey County has been reviewing work of its former medical examiner

The Ramsey County attorney has launched an outside review of the work of the county’s former, longtime medical examiner after a federal appeals court judge wrote that the doctor’s testimony was “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate” in the murder trial of the man convicted of killing Dru Sjodin in 2003.

Dr. Michael McGee was Ramsey County’s chief medical examiner from 1985 to 2019 and continued working as a forensic pathologist for the county through 2021. He also carried out autopsies for a number of counties in Minnesota.

The latest blow to McGee’s work came Friday, when the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office announced it agreed to vacate a man’s 1998 conviction for first- and second-degree murder in Kandiyohi County. The AG’s office said McGee’s testimony was the “linchpin” of the case and cited “increasing scrutiny” of his work.

Because McGee’s work involved homicides, the stakes are high, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Wednesday.

“This is what I think every prosecutor should be doing when anything comes into question about … the integrity of any past convictions,” he said. “I think hindsight is one of the most important tools of justice. … That’s why we’re undertaking this review, so that the public has full faith and confidence that our convictions have integrity and are faithful to the truth.”

Choi began looking at McGee’s work after the appellate judge’s opinion about the Sjodin case was published in 2021. The inquiry started with 216 cases dating to the 1980s. An outside review narrowed it to 71 cases and they began a deeper analysis this month, Choi said.

The Pioneer Press could not reach McGee for comment Wednesday.

Further review of 71 cases starting

A jury found Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. guilty of kidnapping college student Dru Sjodin in Grand Forks, N.D., in 2003 and killing her near Crookston, Minn. He was sentenced to death but attorneys for Rodriguez filed appeals.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson threw out Rodriguez’s death sentence in a September 2021 ruling, writing that evidence showed McGee was “guessing” on the stand and defense lawyers did not adequately explore mental health evidence. The judge ordered a new sentencing phase be conducted. Rodriguez remains in prison.

Dr. Kelly Mills, Ramsey County’s current chief medical examiner, said in a Wednesday statement that “all pathologists in the (Rodriguez) case gave opinions aside from the actual autopsy findings. Dr. McGee provided his opinion in the same fashion as the other pathologists. It is up to the jury/judge to decide which opinion(s) have the most bearing.”

As a result of Erickson’s ruling, Choi’s office entered into a contract with Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence to review McGee’s work in cases prosecuted by the Ramsey County attorney’s office. The first phase of the review by the center, a national organization that provides consulting and research services to prosecutors, happened from last April to November.

The center examined Ramsey County homicide cases in which McGee was listed as the witness, which meant he had done the autopsy, Choi said. The cases selected for a closer look — about 70 — are ones in which the cause of death was “a significant issue,” Choi said. They’re more complicated situations than a shooting, for example.

The Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence is reviewing trial transcripts of testimony and medical examiner’s files in the next phase of review. When that work is done, the organization will provide a report to Choi’s office. If even more analysis is needed for any of the cases, Choi said they’ll seek to have pathologists from outside of Minnesota do the work.

Flaws found in other cases

In 2020, Attorney General Keith Ellison and the Great North Innocence Project announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had awarded the organization and the AG’s office a $300,000 grant to fund the creation of a Conviction Review Unit. It’s intended to review cases for people who claim innocence.

Friday’s announcement about Thomas Rhodes’ 1998 murder conviction being vacated marked the first time someone was freed from incarceration because of an investigation and case review by the Conviction Review Unit.

Rhodes’ wife, Jane Rhodes, fell overboard and drowned during a nighttime boat ride with Thomas Rhodes on Green Lake in Spicer, Minn. Based on McGee’s testimony and autopsy report, prosecutors argued at the time that Rhodes “intentionally grabbed his wife by the neck, pushed her overboard, and ran her over multiple times,” according to Friday’s summary by Ellison’s office.

The Conviction Review Unit agreed to review Rhodes’ conviction. Another forensic pathologist found Jane Rhodes’ death “was not inconsistent with an accidental fall, as Mr. Rhodes maintained,” the summary continued.

The Innocence Project previously had another client freed due to McGee’s testimony being called into question, said Hayley Drozdowski-Poxleitner, director of communications and community outreach.

Michael Hansen was convicted in Douglas County, Minn., of murdering his 3-month-old daughter and served six years of his sentence before he was exonerated in 2011, according to an Innocence Project summary.

McGee had testified that Avryonna Hansen died of a skull fracture he believed was caused by an intentional blow to her head while she was in her father’s care, but “dismissed the idea that the fracture could have been caused by Avryonna’s well-documented fall from a shopping cart 6 days before her death,” the summary said. Medical examiners demonstrated the infant’s fracture was healing and she likely died of accidental suffocation in her sleep, according to the Innocence Project.

After the 2011 exoneration, Choi had a retired prosecutor examine McGee’s handling of infant death cases. The Ramsey County attorney’s office issued some recommendations to McGee regarding future infant death cases, and said a review of a portion of his cases determined that he had handled them properly.

Ramsey County also issued a statement on Choi’s review at the time and said McGee “has served Ramsey County professionally and with distinction” and seconded Choi’s vote of confidence in McGee. McGee said then that he stood by his original findings in the Hansen case.

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