County to further review case involving medical examiner's disputed testimonyby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Ramsey County Attorney's Office plans to hire a retired prosecutor to review a homicide case in Douglas County in which a judge found the Ramsey County medical examiner gave false or incorrect testimony.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the review will look at whether chief medical examiner Michael McGee's work in that case raises questions about his credibility.
"We obviously don't want to have a situation where we may have relied on some testimony of our medical examiner that could cause doubt about anything that has happened in the past in this office," he said.
Choi also ordered a review of all homicide cases dating back to 2005 in which McGee testified as an expert witness or was listed as a potential expert witness. As part of the review, the county attorney's office looked specifically for infant homicides. None of the 21 homicide cases in which McGee was listed as an expert witness involved infants. However, the office may examine other cases, based on the separate review of the Douglas County case, Choi said.
"We have to be thorough in going backwards to look to make sure that in those past cases that justice was done," he said. "It would be kind of like peeling the layers off of an onion, and so we would peel one layer off and see where we're at, but the whole time in terms of what we would be doing is making sure that justice was accomplished."
The review was prompted by Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine's finding that McGee gave false or incorrect testimony that helped lead jurors to convict an Alexandria man of murdering his infant daughter. That conviction was overturned in July, and the baby's father, Michael Hansen, was released from prison after serving six years of a 14 and-a-half year prison sentence.
McGee has served as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner for 26 years, but he's not a county employee. He runs a private company that has a nearly $700,000 contract with Ramsey County to provide medical examiner services for Ramsey and Washington counties. He also serves as the medical examiner for at least 13 other counties. No one oversees his day-to-day work.
Choi said his office has a duty to investigate any concerns that could impair its ability to pursue justice and maintain public safety, even though McGee is not an employee of the county attorney's office.
County boards, Choi said, "don't have the expertise necessarily to manage appropriately the contract."
The Ramsey County manager's office, which negotiates McGee's contract, conducted a one-day review on Sept. 6 to determine whether McGee violated contract terms. The review did not look at any specific cases, and found McGee was in compliance with his contract and state law. McGee's contract expires at the end of 2014. The county board can also terminate the contract without cause after providing a 45-day written notice.
The Washington County Attorney's Office recently completed its own review of homicide cases involving McGee, including all cases dating back to 2005 and several cases from earlier in the decade. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he decided to review the cases after a lengthy phone conversation with Choi about recent criticism of the medical examiner. The Washington County review did not find any infant homicide cases and did not find any problems with McGee's work on other cases, Orput said.
"He's done an outstanding job, he has for me, but I've never worked with him on a baby death case," he said.
Asked whether he thinks McGee has done a good job in Ramsey County, Choi said, "He has a very favorable impression in our office. Our office has enjoyed working with him for a very, very long time."
McGee did not return several emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Other medical examiners and experts in infant death investigations said McGee's handling of the Douglas County case raises questions about the lack of oversight of medical examiners and coroners in Minnesota. Each county appoints its own medical examiner or coroner, and none is required by law to follow state or national guidelines for infant death investigations.
MPR News contacted county attorneys in the 13 other counties that rely on McGee's company for medical examiner services. County attorneys in Stearns, Cass, Clay and Waseca counties said they recently reviewed past cases to look for infant homicides in which McGee performed an autopsy or testified at trial.
In Stearns County, the review found one such case, but county attorney Janelle Kendall said that although McGee performed the autopsy, the baby's death was reviewed by several other medical experts who agreed with the medical examiner.
Cass County Attorney Christopher Strandlie said McGee "hasn't personally conducted any medical examinations for us for many years." Instead, Strandlie said, autopsies are conducted by one of the three other doctors employed by McGee's company.
In Clay County, McGee has performed several autopsies since 2003, said assistant county attorney Heidi Davies. All of those, she said, "were gunshot wounds with eyewitnesses," and prosecutors "did not have any reason to question the work that was done."
Waseca County saw its last homicide in 2007, said county attorney Paul Dressler, and McGee's work on the case, which did not involve an infant, "certainly didn't give rise to any concerns about McGee's ability to do his job."
Eight counties did not respond to calls asking whether they were conducting similar reviews. Crow Wing County Attorney Donald Ryan said his office does not need to review any cases, since there have not been any infant homicides since the county began contracting with McGee's company.
The other counties that contract with McGee for medical examiner services are Aitkin, Hubbard, Kanabec, Morrison, Nicollet, Pine, Polk and Sherburne. Additional counties across the state work with McGee on a case-by-case basis.