On May 2, 2004, 27-year-old Michael Ray Hansen went to bed sometime after 2 a.m. in his home in Alexandria, Minnesota. He went to sleep on a futon mattress with his three-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Avryonna Hansen, as well as Avryonna’s three-year-old sister.
When he awoke, Avryonna was unresponsive. Paramedics were unable to resuscitate her.
The baby was taken to the Douglas County Coroner’s Office where Dr. Michael Spannbauer began an autopsy. When he discovered that the baby had a complex skull fracture on the left side of her skull, he contacted law enforcement, who determined that a forensic pathologist should also examine the body.
Ramsey County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee conducted another autopsy and classified the cause of death as blunt force trauma and manner of death a homicide. Neither physician found any intracranial bleeding or injury to the surface of Avryonna’s brain.
Hansen was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of second-degree murder.
At trial before a jury in 2006, Amanda Schulke, the mother of the two girls, who lived in nearby Sebeka, testified that she brought the girls over to Hansen so he could watch them while she worked. She said that six days prior to Avryonna’s death, the baby had been in her car seat perched on a shopping cart in a Wal-Mart parking lot when the car seat toppled to the pavement. She said she didn’t believe the girl had been injured at all—protected, she believed, by the handle of the car seat sticking up above the baby.
Dr. McGee testified that the cause of death was closed-head trauma caused by blunt trauma, possibly caused by being pushed or shoved into the bedrails, the floor, or the wall. McGee said that Avryonna did not die as a result of any head injury connected with the Wal-Mart incident. He said that the manner in which the child was strapped into the car seat would have prevented the type of injury the baby suffered. Furthermore, McGee said it would not have been possible for a four-month-old who had sustained that type of injury to act normally over a period of six days.
The prosecution also called a former jail inmate who said he met Hansen in jail on October 16, 2004. David Ewing, who was released after agreeing to testify for the state, told the jury that Hansen said he needed to talk about his case or he was “going to go crazy.”
According to Ewing, Hansen said that the baby was very colicky and that he could not tolerate her “colickiness.” Ewing also testified that Hansen told him that on the night the baby died, he and a friend had stayed up late drinking and “smoking weed.”
Ewing also testified that Hansen told him that the baby woke up at about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and began to cry. Ewing claimed that although Hansen was difficult to understand because he was “crying so hard,” his statements indicated that he killed the baby.
Dr. Janice Ophoven, a forensic pathologist with special training in pediatric forensic pathology testified as a defense witness, saying that Avryonna suffered a skull fracture that occurred about a week before her death.
Dr. Ophoven said she identified substantial healing to the tissues of the baby’s skull, which meant that the fracture could not have occurred on the night that she died.
Dr. Ophoven said the baby died of either trauma to her brain caused by a fall or an injury that occurred about a week before her death, or, despite an incidental skull fracture, of an undetermined natural cause.
The jury convicted Hansen of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 14.5 years in prison.
On April 1, 2008, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota upheld the conviction.
Hansen reached out to the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which then consulted with several medical experts.
The Innocence Project filed a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus and a hearing was held in the spring of 2011. At the hearing, five doctors testified on Hansen’s behalf, agreeing that the skull fracture did not cause the baby’s death and that the likely cause was positional asphyxia. Further, they testified that
Dr. McGee’s investigation was inadequate and incomplete.
Evidence was presented that in the years after Hansen’s conviction, medical experts began learning that the cause of many unexpected infant deaths is accidental asphyxiation due to unsafe sleep conditions.
The physicians testifying on Hansen’s behalf said that a skull fracture was only dangerous if it leads to brain bleeding or swelling—neither of which was present in Avryonna’s case. That the girl displayed no symptoms was further evidence that the fracture was not the cause of death, they said. Moreover, the fracture was healing—evidence that it did not occur on the day of her death.
On July 21, 2011, Douglas County District Court Judge Peter M. Irvine ruled that the new evidence of the cause of death “would probably result in a more favorable outcome at trial.”
The judge also found that Dr. McGee had discovered the evidence of the healing, but did not include it in his autopsy report.
Further, the judge criticized as “not credible” McGee’s assertion that after “eyeballing” the car seat, it was “common sense” that the baby’s fall from the shopping cart could not have caused the fracture.
He vacated Hansen’s conviction and Hansen was released.
On September 16, 2011, the Douglas County Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley