Ramsey County attorney reviewing cases tied to former medical examiner

Ramsey County attorney reviewing cases tied to former medical examiner

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office is reviewing more than 70 criminal convictions associated with the county’s longtime medical examiner amid “scathing” criticism of his work in two separate death investigations.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said his staff has worked with an outside firm to comb through hundreds of cases in which Dr. Michael McGee was a witness, and has narrowed its review to 71 cases.

“It’s really important that we are committed to the integrity of our convictions,” Choi said in an interview Thursday. “My job is not to be there to protect a conviction at all costs. My job is to do justice and to do that job without fear or favor. I will do whatever justice requires as a result of this review.”

McGee was the county medical examiner from 1985 to 2019 and continued to work for the department as a forensic pathologist until he retired in 2021. As medical examiner, he also served neighboring Washington County and more than a dozen outstate counties.

McGee could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In September 2021, U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson vacated a 2006 federal death penalty sentence in part because of McGee’s autopsy findings. The judge called portions of his testimony “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate.”

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was convicted in federal court of the 2003 kidnapping and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. He awaits a new sentencing.

Sjodin was kidnapped from a mall parking lot in Grand Forks, N.D., in November 2003, and her remains were discovered in a field near Crookston, Minn. in April 2004.

At trial, McGee “testified that he believed Sjodin’s neck was slashed where her body was found …,” according to the opinion. He identified four possible causes of death: the slash wounds, asphyxiation, strangulation or exposure to cold if the wounds were not fatal.

“The evidence in the record demonstrates that McGee did much more than merely follow where the evidence and science led him. Instead, he chose to play the role of a super sleuth, something akin to Sherlock Holmes,” Erickson wrote.

“McGee provided the government with a theory worthy of capital punishment. But more importantly, a theory that was neither contained within McGee’s autopsy reports nor disclosed to trial counsel until long after the deadline for expert disclosures had passed. Worse yet, it was a theory unsupportable by competent evidence.”

On appeal, several experts reviewed the evidence and testified at the evidentiary hearing.

“Not a single expert who was called to testify at the evidentiary hearing supported McGee’s conclusion that there was evidence indicating Sjodin’s neck was slashed,” according to the opinion.

Choi said that while the case was outside of his Ramsey County jurisdiction, the judge’s “scathing” criticism of his community’s medical examiner could not be ignored.

“We have to take that seriously,” Choi said.

Choi hired the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, an independent nonprofit, to recommend a course of action and assist with evaluating cases. They looked for cases where the cause of death was an issue “that needed to be considered by the prosecutor as well as the finder of fact and the defense attorney.”

Prosecutors will review the medical examiner files, prosecution files and trial transcripts in the remaining 71 cases. Choi said they will also hire an outside, nationally recognized forensic pathologist to assist in the review.

Questions around McGee deepened last week, when a Kandiyohi County judge vacated a 1998 murder conviction that hinged on his testimony. Thomas Rhodes, now 63, was convicted in 1998 of first- and second-degree murder in the death of his wife, 36-year-old Jane Rhodes, who fell overboard and drowned on a night-time boat ride with her husband in 1996.

The murder conviction relied on McGee, who said Rhodes grabbed his wife by the neck, threw her overboard and drove the boat over her several times, the state Attorney General’s Office said last week. Rhodes told investigators his wife fell out of the boat and he was unable to locate her.

The Conviction Review Unit in the Attorney General’s Office examined the case. As part of that investigation, a forensic pathologist found that Jane Rhodes’ death was not inconsistent with an accidental fall, the office said.

Rhodes had his murder conviction vacated this month after nearly 25 years in prison, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter instead. He left prison Jan. 13.

“Certainly what happened this past Friday adds to the urgency and need to do this,” Choi said. “In some ways, I feel validated because we are spending a lot of money on this.”

The county has spent $175,000 on two contracts with the Prosecutors’ Center For Excellence, Choi said. His staff is coordinating with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office Conviction Review Unit and the Great North Innocence Project, which are also reviewing cases associated with McGee from outside Ramsey County.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.