(AP) — A Minnesota man who served nearly 25 years in connection with his wife’s death walked out of prison on Friday after authorities vacated his murder convictions and allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter, citing a problem with expert testimony from a doctor whose statements in other cases have also come under scrutiny.
Thomas Rhodes, who is now 63, was convicted in 1998 of first- and second-degree murder in the death of his 36-year-old wife, Jane Rhodes, who fell overboard and drowned on a night-time boat ride with her husband on Green Lake in Spicer in 1996.
The murder conviction hinged on the testimony of Dr. Michael McGee, who said Rhodes grabbed his wife by the neck, threw her overboard, and ran her over several times, the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement Friday. Rhodes told investigators his wife fell out of the boat and disappeared while he frantically searched for her in the dark.
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.
“With the benefit of a thorough review of all the evidence and circumstances, the CRU found that the medical evidence used in Mr. Rhodes’ conviction was flawed,” the statement said.
“I look forward to hugging my sons Eric and Jason, being a good grandfather to my six wonderful grandkids, and having time to create new memories with family and friends,” Rhodes told the Mankato Free Press on Friday.
Messages left Saturday at phone numbers listed for Michael McGee were not immediately returned. Efforts to reach him through social media were not immediately successful.
The state’s report did not exonerate Rhodes: the Attorney General’s Office said there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction of second-degree manslaughter, saying negligence led to his wife’s death. However, Rhodes has spent nearly 25 years in prison, which is more than twice the maximum sentence allowed for the manslaughter conviction.
Rhodes drove a small, unstable boat late at night at top speed, knowing that his wife could not swim, the statement said. She was neither wearing a life jacket nor were life jackets available. Also, the boat had no flashlights or a quick way to call for help.
On Friday, a Kandiyohi County judge vacated Rhodes’ murder convictions. The Minnesota Department of Corrections said the judge then accepted a plea to second-degree manslaughter. Rhodes was sentenced to four years in prison, and got credit for time served, which led to his release, the corrections department said.
Rhodes is the first person released in Minnesota since the Conviction Review Unit was created in 2021. The unit reviews legal cases for people who claim to be innocent.
“He was beaming the whole time,” Hayley Drozdowski-Poxleitner, a spokesperson for the Great North Innocence Project, said of Rhodes. “This has been a long, long time coming.”
The Great North Innocence Project, which worked with the Attorney General’s Office, said in a news release that nine forensic pathologists reviewed the case and found that Jane Rhodes’ injuries were most likely caused by a blow to her head, possibly from falling out of the boat or from an unintentional hit by the boat as Rhodes searched the water.
None of the forensic pathologists would have called her death a murder, the organization said.
Testimony from McGee has been questioned in several cases in recent years. In 2021, a federal judge threw out the death sentence of a man who was convicted of kidnapping in the 2003 slaying of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin, in part because of testimony from McGee. That judge said new evidence showed McGee, the former Ramsey County Medical Examiner, was “guessing” on the witness stand. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is expected to be re-sentenced, and prosecutors have said they will still seek the death penalty.