The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a man convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing three girls in Dakota County. The court said Paul R. Hakala did not get a fair trial because the judge did not allow his attorney to call an expert witness to the stand.

Hakala is serving a sentence of nearly 16 years at Oak Park Heights maximum security prison. He has cancer, diabetes and heart disease and may not live long enough for a new trial, said his attorney, John Lillie.

An appellate panel ruled 2-1 Tuesday that District Judge Thomas Poch should have allowed the testimony of a witness who was prepared to testify about procedures used to interview children in sex-abuse cases.

Hakala, 69, of Rosemount, had insisted that the children made up the allegations. The girls reported that the molestations began when they ranged in age from 9 to 12 and continued for three years. They reported the alleged abuse two years after they said it had stopped; they had seen Hakala regularly during those two years.

A jury believed the children and in July 2007 found Hakala guilty of one count of first-degree and two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct.

During the trial, Lillie wanted to call an expert who had concerns about some of the questions and follow-up questions that a child-protection social worker from CornerHouse had asked the children. CornerHouse provides interview services in cases of suspected child sexual abuse.

The social worker testified that safeguards and specialized questions were used. In addition to victims' live testimony, their videotaped interviews were played for the jury.

Lillie contended that there were inconsistencies in the children's testimony. Near the end of the trial, he attempted to call Dr. Susan Phipps-Yonas to testify about the social worker's interview techniques, which Lillie says were questionable.

Dakota County prosecutor Lawrence Clark moved to exclude or limit Phipps-Yonas' testimony, and Poch agreed. The judge ruled that allowing Phipps-Yonas to attack the credibility of the social worker's testimony would imply that the kids were lying.

In their opinion Tuesday, appellate judges Natalie Hudson and Bertrand Poritsky said the convictions must be vacated. Judge Francis Connolly dissented, noting that the jury believed the children. He wrote that Poch did not abuse his discretion, but even if he had, any resulting error was harmless.

No comment was available Thursday from Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom.

Lillie said he's had discussions with a prosecutor indicating it's likely the county will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The high court reviews roughly one out of 10 such petitions. If a review is granted, it can take more than a year to be heard.

Lillie and Hakala's wife said his lung-cancer chemotherapy has been stopped because of congestive heart failure. He will remain in prison medical care, where he is unable to walk or use a wheelchair, for at least 37 days while the county attorney decides whether to ask the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision.

"His prognosis isn't so good," said Lillie, adding that Hakala "is one step away from a hospice."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017