Last week, faculty at the university where I teach gathered at my home to discuss Bryan Stevenson’s compelling story of criminal injustice, “Just Mercy.” Our conversation focused on evidence overlooked by district attorneys in favor of swift convictions. We shook our heads at the injustice but, by morning, most had moved on to new thoughts — thoughts of classes to teach and meetings to attend. As much as I wanted to move on, I couldn’t. I found myself identifying deeply with the injustice perpetrated by those district attorneys.
I’m not black. I’m not poor. I’m a mother who lost my son. His death was ruled a suicide by medical examiners who, like the district attorneys in Stevenson’s book, overlooked crucial evidence in their haste to close a case.
My son, officer Ryan Hoeft, died when a bullet from his service weapon entered the right side of his head. Forensic pathologist Dr. Janis Amatuzio, using evidence uncovered near the scene where my son’s body was discovered, concluded that Ryan’s death was the result of a freak accident. Why then does Ryan’s death certificate still list suicide as his cause of death?
Unlike the men and women who sit on death row who, if fortunate enough to find an attorney like Bryan Stevenson, are able to challenge an erroneous ruling in court, Ryan’s family and the families of the 40,000 men and women whose deaths are ruled suicide each year enjoy no such right. A medical examiner’s ruling is final in all states except Wisconsin and Ohio.
On the night of his death in 2001, Ryan was patrolling a busy neighborhood in St. Louis Park. His squad car was discovered at the base of a hill, with its engine running, headlights shining and car in drive. Hennepin County medical examiners determined that Ryan drove to a secluded spot, removed his service weapon from its holster, pressed it to his right temple and pulled the trigger.
Using tire marks found on a curb, 10 feet outside the condoned-off perimeter of the death scene, Sgt. Don Schmalzbauer, the lead accident reconstructionist for the Minnesota State Patrol, demonstrated that medical examiners had made a mistake. Ryan did not press his gun to his head. Ryan’s head slammed into his service weapon as his squad car collided with the curb. As Ryan struggled to pull his vehicle from the curb, the service weapon he grasped in his right hand discharged.
Our family challenged Ryan’s inaccurate cause-of-death ruling in court only to be told by the district court judge that we had no such right. The appellate court agreed. The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear Ryan’s case.
Guidelines of the National Association of Medical Examiners state that a preponderance of evidence must demonstrate suicide before such a ruling is made. Unfortunately, guidelines are not policy, and the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office was able to ignore those guidelines.
Death certificates are vital records from which crucial statistics are harvested. In 2009 and 2010, then-state Rep. Tom Emmer introduced legislation that would ensure the accuracy of vital statistics. The name of his bill was Ryan’s Vital Record Rights Act, legislation that would allow a medical examiner’s ruling to be challenged in court.
In 2009, Ryan’s Vital Record Rights Act (HF 176) received the unanimous support of the House’s health policy committee. Days later, the bill died before the Civil Justice Committee on a 4-4 vote with help from a lobbyist hired by medical examiners. In 2010, a hearing on the bill was blocked before the same committee.
Legislation in Minnesota that would allow a medical examiner’s inaccurate ruling to be challenged in court is crucial. It would be one giant step toward guaranteeing the accuracy of Minnesota’s vital records.
Stevenson’s book sheds light on wrongful criminal convictions. His book gives the innocent a voice. “The Betrayal of Officer Ryan Hoeft: A Conspiracy of Silence” is the book I wrote to shed light on my son’s wrongful cause-of-death ruling. It is my effort to give Ryan a voice.
Mary Hoeft lives in Rice Lake, Wis. Her book, “The Betrayal of Officer Ryan Hoeft: A Conspiracy of Silence,” is available at Amazon.com. Ryan’s death reconstruction is posted on YouTube.