9 experts say inmate serving life sentence is not a killer

Throughout his 17 years of incarceration, Thomas Rhodes has stuck to his story that he's not a killer.

Minister Gina Spohnheimer is a family friend and a Rhodes advocate. Once a month, she drives 3 hours to visit him in prison. She's been making the trek for 16 years.

"You stick by what you believe and I believe in his innocence," said Spohnheimer.

It's been a long, agonizing road to get to the truth, but now, nine experts are lining up to say the forensic science is in Rhodes' corner. They believe an innocent man is serving a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

"It's such a travesty of justice," said Forensic Pathologist, Lindsey Thomas. "This was not a murder. This was an accidental drowning."

The Fox 9 Investigators first interviewed Rhodes back in 2010.

"I know there was never any violence in our marriage, there was no violence that night," said Rhodes.

Fox 9 profiled his case as part of an investigation into the work of Ramsey County medical examiner, Dr. Michael McGee. It was McGee who convinced prosecutors and a jury the death of Thomas' wife Jane, was a murder. 

"It was a critical component to why I'm here," said Rhodes.

In the summer of 1996, the Rhodes and their two sons went on vacation to Green Lake in west central Minnesota. One night after dark, Thomas and Jane took a ride on their jet boat.  According to Thomas, they were cruising along at a high speed when Jane stood up to reach for something and then fell.

"I just saw her shoes go over," Rhodes recalled.

He said he circled back, even jumped in the water to look for her but saw nothing in the darkness. He went to get help from law enforcement. A search ensued, but there was no sign of his wife until the next day when her body was found floating face down near shore. Two years later, he was indicted for his wife's murder. McGee did the autopsy and determined Jane had been beaten. He found injuries to her head and neck that he said could have killed her even if she hadn't drowned.

"Nothing like that happened, there was no contact between myself and my wife that night," Rhodes said.

Prosecutors built a case against Rhodes on the theory he wanted to divorce his wife, but decided against it for financial reasons, so he killed her instead. Rhodes admitted seeing another woman previously but says he and Jane had reconciled.

"I hadn't seen anybody outside of my marriage for over a year when the accident happened," Rhodes told the Fox 9 Investigators.

At the trial, McGee used a clay model to show the injuries he found on Jane's face.

"The average juror looks at this terrible picture and thinks oh, she must have been beaten. No she wasn't," said Thomas.

Thomas is one of nine forensic pathologists who've reviewed the autopsy records free of charge. Every one of them said McGee's findings are wrong.

"It's not just a battle of experts. The evidence is so overwhelming," said Thomas.

The experts all agree. The markings on Jane's face and neck were not from a beating but were caused by the drowning process and from a body floating face down for hours. To prove the point, Seattle Dr. Carl Wigren  went to Green Lake where Jane Rhodes died. A volunteer similar in size to Jane was hired to wear a snorkel and mask and float in the area where the body was recovered. Dr. Wigren went underwater with a camera and recorded the volunteer's face rubbing on the bottom of the shore which he says explains the marks that were found on Jane.

"These were all what we call travel abrasions, travel through the water while you're in motion face down," said Wigren.

The Innocence Project is working on Rhodes behalf.  They have a hearing in front of the Minnesota Supreme court next month. 

"We obviously believe he's innocent or we wouldn't have taken case," said Julie Jonas, Legal Director at the Innocence Project.

The Department of Corrections doesn't allow on-camera interviews with inmates anymore, but Fox 9 spoke with Rhodes by phone. He said he is "hopeful and guardedly optimistic" about the upcoming hearing.

"I have a really close-knit family and thank goodness they've stayed beside me," commented the father of two.

He has a picture that sustains him, it’s a father's day gift from his boys that reads, "World's Greatest Dad."

Reporter: "What was your reaction when you got it?" 

Rhodes: "Well, you know, you're in prison and you don't think of yourself as the world's greatest dad at that point." 

While he's been in prison his father has passed away, his two sons have grown up, gotten married and had children of their own. There are two more babies are on the way.

For 17 years, he's had a dream.

"Maybe getting a chance to rejoin them and being part of my grandchildren's lives in a capacity hopefully other than the prison visit room," he described.

McGee, the medical examiner who ruled Jane Rhodes' death a homicide, did not respond to multiple requests to comment on the new evidence. The prosecutor also declined to discuss it given the upcoming hearing before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Ramsey County medical examiner’s work has come into question in another murder conviction. In 2011, the Innocence Project was able to get Michael Hansen freed from a murder conviction. Other experts came forward to say McGee was wrong when he testified that Hansen’s infant daughter was killed by a blow to the head. Instead, those experts concluded she died in her sleep from accidental suffocation. Hansen spent six years behind bars before the conviction was tossed out.