Dad freed from conviction: 'It's over'

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2011 - 11:02 AM

Murder charges dropped in 2004 death of infant daughter.

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Michael Hansen greeted his mother, Debra Meyer, after his Aug. 18 release from a jail in Alexandria, Minn.

Photo: Jeffrey Thompson, Associated Press

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It was his youngest daughter's first day of school, and Michael Ray Hansen wasn't there.

"All I got was a picture in the mail of them getting off the bus," said Hansen, 34, now of Blaine.

That image, from the early part of his six years in prison, was just one of many events he missed out on during his time behind bars for the 2004 murder of his infant daughter in Alexandria, Minn. -- charges now dropped by prosecutors.

On Friday, about a week before Hansen's new trial was to begin, the Douglas County Attorney's Office dropped all charges against him and said it "no longer believes that it can prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

The exoneration came after a judge in July had vacated Hansen's conviction and ordered a new trial based on evidence presented by the Innocence Project of Minnesota, saying that there was evidence that the Ramsey County medical examiner might have given "false or incorrect" testimony at the first trial. He was released from prison in August.

In 2004, when Hansen was living in Alexandria, he awakened next to 3 1/2-month-old Avryonna and one of his other daughters, then 3, on a futon to find the baby unresponsive. Paramedics called to the home were unable to resuscitate her.

During autopsies, it was discovered that Avryonna had a skull fracture. Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee, who performed the second autopsy, classified the manner of Avryonna's death as a homicide and said it was caused by blunt-force trauma.

In 2006, Hansen was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Throughout his imprisonment, he insisted that he wasn't guilty, but an early appeal was denied. Hansen then contacted the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono investigative and legal assistance to prisoners trying to prove their innocence.

According to attorneys who worked with the Innocence Project, the medical examiner's determination of what killed Avryonna was incorrect and poisoned the jury's verdict. "It just absolutely spun out of control," attorney Paul Applebaum said Sunday. "[Hansen] was railroaded ... because the age of the injury was incorrectly assessed by the medical examiner."

Avryonna's skull fracture, which could have occurred when the car seat she was in fell out of a shopping cart six days before her death, was in the process of healing when she died, Applebaum said.

Accidental suffocation?

At a post-conviction hearing, defense attorneys called on five doctors -- two medical examiners, an emergency medicine physician, a forensic pathologist and an expert in child abuse. They said that after taking into account factors such as the conditions in which Avryonna was sleeping -- three people on a futon with pillows and blankets -- and the absence of brain trauma, usually associated with fatal head injuries, they believe that she most likely died of accidental suffocation, not as the result of the skull fracture.

In a review whose results were issued early this month, Ramsey County said McGee complied with all state laws and with his contract with the county. McGee couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.

Erika Applebaum, executive director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, said that if anything can be learned from Hansen's experience, it's that juries should not blindly accept all expert testimony. "They have to take everything into account," she said.

While Hansen didn't explicitly blame McGee for his incarceration, he said, "The people who had a hand in putting me away, I will just say that they should have done their job properly."

The father of two daughters, ages 10 and 12, said he is trying to pick up where he left off years ago and to move on with his life. "I woke up this morning, and the first thing I said to myself is, 'I'm not going to trial. It's over with,'" Hansen said.

He is looking forward to going back to work and being a father. "I will never get that six years back. ... You shouldn't have to be 34 years old and starting your life," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

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