ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Ramsey County said Tuesday that it found that its longtime medical examiner complied with state laws in a review conducted after a judge found gave “false or incorrect” testimony in a murder trial.
A statement from Ramsey County said it also found Dr. Michael McGee complied with his contract with the county. But the county also said it would monitor the outcome of the retrial for Michael Hansen, who was convicted in the 2004 death of his baby girl thanks in part to testimony from McGee.
In July, Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine found fault with McGee’s testimony about the symptoms of infant skull fractures and about a fall Hansen’s daughter, Avryonna, experienced days before she died. Irvine ordered a new trial for Hanson that’s expected to start late this month.
“The jury might have reached a different conclusion in Mr. Hansen’s case without this testimony,” Irvine wrote.
Minnesota Public Radio News reported Tuesday that the case raised questions about McGee’s work and the lack of oversight of medical examiners in the state. McGee, who is a private contractor, has been Ramsey County’s medical examiner for 26 years and also serves at least 14 other counties. His company earned nearly $1 million last year.
The county’s statement also touted McGee’s reputation for forensic pathology work.
McGee’s work on the Hansen case was criticized by several doctors and experts on child death investigations, including some who reviewed the case for the Innocence Project, which is representing Hansen.
McGee declined to discuss the Hansen case with Minnesota Public Radio News, citing pending litigation.
But he told the jury that the 3-month-old girl died of a skull fracture that could have been caused by being thrown against a concrete wall or floor. He ruled the death a homicide.
None of the five physicians who reviewed the case believed the girl died of the skull fracture, according to the judge’s ruling. They said the fracture showed signs of healing and could have been caused when the child fell from a shopping cart six days earlier. Doctors found it more likely the girl suffocated while sleeping on a futon with her father and 3-year-old sister.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a statement that his office takes concerns about McGee’s work seriously.
“While I believe that we should not rush to judgment about the difficult work of medical examiners, which often times is challenged by differing opinions offered by competing medical examiners at trial, we will also not hesitate to initiate a review of that work when it is warranted by specific circumstances,” the statement said.
Choi added that his office recently completed an internal review of McGee’s interpretation of a laboratory test used in sexual assault cases in Ramsey County, after St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Uncini said McGee miscalculated test results in hundreds of rape cases in the 1980s.
Choi said that review found McGee handled those cases properly.
“If necessary, we will undertake a similar assessment upon resolution of the Douglas County case to ensure that justice and public safety are served,” Choi said.
McGee doesn’t conduct his own investigation of deaths that occur outside of Ramsey and Washington counties and relies on information from local law enforcement. He says officers are well equipped to investigate deaths. But other medical examiners told MPR that police are more likely to find evidence of a crime than evidence of an illness or accident.
In the Hansen case, McGee had to try to find out what caused Avryonna’s death and decide whether it was a homicide, an accident, or something else. He was not required to follow state guidelines that recommend all infant death investigations include a re-enactment of the death scene with the person who found the baby.
McGee did not travel to the scene or send an investigator. He did not use a doll to re-create how the baby was found, or investigate the baby’s sleeping conditions.
Irvine wrote that McGee stopped looking for a cause of death when he found the skull fracture, “even though he could identify no anatomical injury sufficient to explain her death.” He also noted McGee did not take samples from the skull bone, “even though he knew that the timing of Avryonna’s injury would be a key issue.”
McGee, 63, said he sees his work as a public service for providing answers to the public, families and the legal system.
“The job is interesting. The job has become busy, and it’s been enjoyable. This is the only thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
The county expenditures for the medical examiner’s office were $2.3 million last year, including the cost of performing an estimated 500 autopsies for Ramsey County. McGee’s office also performs another 500 autopsies a year for counties throughout the state. Those autopsies bring in money for McGee and for the county.
Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said McGee’s work for other counties saves money and shows he’s doing a good job.
“I know that he is nationally recognized and has been called upon to provide assistance many, many times outside of Ramsey County, and to me that speaks to his professionalism and integrity,” she said.
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