Ramsey County Attorney backs medical examiner

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 10:52 PM

Michael McGee's work was questioned after conviction in infant-death case was vacated.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Thursday he has confidence in the work of county Medical Examiner Michael McGee, despite questions raised elsewhere about McGee's handling of a Douglas County infant-death case.

Choi spoke after his office released a review of the 2004 case, which ended with the baby's father, Michael Ray Hansen, being convicted of murder in 2006.

Last year, Hansen's conviction was vacated and he was freed from prison after a judge said evidence showed McGee may have given "false or incorrect" testimony at the trial.

Choi, seeking to ensure McGee's credibility was not compromised for Ramsey County cases, tapped retired prosecutor Jeanne Schleh to review McGee's testimony in the case. She wrote that while McGee may have been wrong in his opinions about the skull fracture, any implication that he gave false testimony was "unfair."

Choi said he was encouraged, too, by the medical examiner's office's stated willingness to consult with clinical experts in child-death investigations that may involve accidental suffocation -- a theory ultimately advanced as the cause of death in the Hansen case.

Hansen was tried for second-degree murder in the death of his 3 1/2-month-old daughter, Avryonna. He was sleeping on a futon next to Avryonna and one of his other daughters, then 2, and awoke to find the baby unresponsive.

Autopsies revealed the baby had a skull fracture.

McGee, who performed the second autopsy, ruled the death a homicide due to "closed head trauma," Schleh wrote.

After Hansen was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison, attorneys with the Innocence Project of Minnesota took up the case and argued McGee's determination of what killed Avryonna was incorrect and poisoned the jury's verdict. One attorney said the skull fracture had been in the process of healing when the baby died and may have occurred when the baby fell out of a shopping cart six days before her death.

Five doctors called upon by defense attorneys said they believed the baby most likely died of accidental suffocation.

In September, the Douglas County attorney's office dropped the charges.

When the Ramsey County attorney's office began fielding question about McGee's testimony, Choi turned to Schleh, who served nearly 32 years as an assistant Ramsey County attorney.

She concluded in her 17-page assessment that the decision to dismiss the case without retrial was "entirely reasonable." She added that if the theory that Avryonna died of suffocation had been presented to the jury, the trial likely would have had a different outcome.

Choi said Thursday that his office plans to work with officers to more closely examine incidents in which "unsafe sleep circumstances" may be a factor in an infant's death.

But while much of the talk Thursday dealt with child suffocation, McGee stood firm.

In a written statement, he said: "We stand by the work of this office and the investigators involved in the case as well as the forensic testimony that was provided. 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."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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