Thomas Daniel Rhodes, 57, has spent the last 18 years in prison for the first-degree murder of his wife, Jane, in Spicer, Minn., in August 1996.
Authorities say he struck her in the face and pushed her overboard on Green Lake, when they were out on a boat ride during a vacation in August 1996. Her body was found the next day.
“Based on what I’ve seen there is compelling evidence of his actual innocence,” said Mark Bradford, Rhodes’ pro bono attorney, who is collaborating with the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Rhodes is now in the Oak Park Heights prison.
On Oct. 17, Bradford and the Innocence Project asked the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for approval to file a petition in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleging Rhodes’ conviction was the product of false testimony.
Rhodes’ petition is just one of the cases the state Innocence Project is working on — it’s screening 45 more to see which ones it might take. To support the work, the Innocence Project of Minnesota is holding its annual fundraiser from 5 to 9 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Depot, 225 3rd Av. S., in Minneapolis. Tickets are $150 each and available at IPMN.org.
Julie Jonas, state Innocence Project legal director, said it has helped get five people out of prison since it started here in 2003. She said several scholars estimate that between 1 and 5 percent of the people in prison are innocent.
“Most of them don’t have any money to hire a lawyer,” she said. “The public defender system isn’t funded to do this kind of work. If there wasn’t an organization like us, they’d just stay in prison forever.”
When Rhodes went on trial for his wife’s death, Bradford said, medical examiner Dr. Michael McGee testified that the interior bruising of Jane Rhodes’ neck could not be caused by drowning and suggested she was choked before the drowning.
“We have seven pathologists who all agree that he was wrong,” said Bradford. “We have new medical literature that demonstrates that the bruising that Jane Rhodes exhibited is completely consistent with accidental drowning.”
In 2014, McGee, chief Ramsey County medical examiner, stated in an affidavit that he still believed his opinions and conclusions were correct. He said pathologists who disagreed with him had looked at each of his “findings in isolation and misinterpreted both the nature and cause of each finding.”
Another point of contention: Jane Rhodes’ body was found a mile from where her husband said she drowned. At trial, Bradford said, prosecutors tried to show that Thomas Rhodes misled investigators, and presented testimony that her body could not have floated that far. But Bradford says the Innocence Project showed it could have floated and some of that testimony was false.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reaffirmed Rhodes’ conviction in February 2016. Justice Wilhelmina Wright wrote that the new evidence “would fail to establish by a clear and convincing standard that Rhodes is innocent.” She wrote that recent petitions to the Supreme Court were filed after the statute of limitations ran out.
Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented, writing that “the newly discovered evidence, if proven to be true and considered in the light most favorable to Rhodes, would establish by clear-and-convincing standard that no reasonable jury would have convicted Rhodes of first-degree premeditated murder beyond a reasonable doubt had the newly discovered evidence been presented at trial.” Justice David Lillehaug joined in the dissent.