Medical Examiner McGee’s role in Jensen murder case under review

As prosecutors and judges continue to dissect the forensic work and testimony of former Ramsey County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee, questions are being raised about yet another high-profile murder case.

Linda Jensen was murdered 31 years ago this week at her secluded home in Big Lake in Sherburne County.

Jensen’s neighbor, Kent Jones, was arrested eight years after her killing and has been found guilty of first-degree murder in two separate trials. The former boy scout leader is currently serving a life sentence in Stillwater Prison.  

The FOX 9 Investigators have learned the Minnesota Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit is reviewing the Jones case. As a condition of that review, the parties have agreed not to discuss the case publicly while its under consideration.

Timeframe for murder

Dr. McGee testified at both trials that during the Jensen autopsy an acid phosphatase test showed the presence of semen.

Based on the intensity of the purple color indicating a positive test, Dr. McGee testified that Jensen died during a violent sexual assault between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., on Feb. 24, 1992.

The narrow timeframe for the killing was critical for the prosecution because Jensen’s killer left few other clues. The sheets of the bed were missing, there were no suspicious fingerprints, and no sign of forced entry into the home.

Jones initially denied knowing Jensen in 1992, but when confronted with DNA evidence eight years later claimed to have been having an affair with Jensen.  

Over the years, Jones has reportedly offered various accounts of when they allegedly last had consensual sex, including the morning of the killing.

A presumptive test, conclusive testimony

But Dr. McGee’s particular use and interpretation the acid phosphatase test is at odds with best practices in forensic science, according to forensic experts and recent court rulings.

"It's terrible," said Kate Judson, executive director of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Judson said the acid phosphatase is a considered only a presumptive indicator for the presence of semen, that needs to be confirmed by other tests, like P30 which indicates the presence of a prostate-specific antigen, or DNA testing.

The acid phosphatase test reacts to an enzyme found in semen, but that same enzyme is also found in vaginal secretions and is produced by a body’s decomposition.

Results from an acid phosphatase test are also not considered sufficiently reliable or precise for establishing a timeframe, according to forensic experts.

"That's not something that should be done. Many laboratories have rules against doing that. But unfortunately, it's not as rare as it should be," Judson told FOX 9.

It wasn’t the last time Dr. McGee used the acid phosphatase test to determine the nature and time frame of a killing.

"Unreliable, misleading, inaccurate"

Dr. McGee played an important role in the death penalty phase of sentencing for Alphonso Rodriguez, who kidnapped and murdered North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin in November 2003.

Her remains were found in a field near Crookston four months later.

Dr. McGee testified that elevated levels on the acid phosphatase test indicated Rodriguez killed Sjodin within 24 to 36 hours of a violent sexual assault.

McGee testified that during the autopsy he saw a "globule or mucoid-like substance during the autopsy" he believed to a seminal deposit, but he did not document or photograph it for his autopsy report.

Subsequent testing from the BCA found no DNA in the sample and a P30 test was negative for the presence of semen.

McGee also testified Sjodin had slash marks around her neck and body.  

But other forensic experts challenged that testimony, arguing that decomposition could account for elevated levels on the acid phosphatase test and the slash marks were likely caused by scavenging animals.  

Rodriguez’s defense attorneys’ argued that McGee’s testimony was based solely on the acid phosphatase test and drew conclusions about the circumstances of the murder that were found nowhere in his autopsy report.

In September 2021, in a scorching 232-page ruling, Judge Ralph R. Erickson of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals meticulously dissected Dr. McGee’s testimony, calling it "unreliable, misleading, and inaccurate."  

Judge Erickson ordered a new sentencing for Rodriguez, who remains in federal prison.

Suddenly, after years of criticism of Dr. McGee’s work, the floodgates were open.

Convictions vacated, cases under review

Based on mistakes in the Rodriguez case, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has ordered an independent review of 71 cases where Dr. McGee may have provided critical testimony.

There are also ongoing reviews of cases where Dr. McGee testified by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit and the Great North Innocence Project.

Last month, a Kandiyohi County judge vacated the 1998 murder conviction of Thomas Rhodes, citing problems with Dr. McGee’s testimony.

Rhodes said his wife, Jane, fell overboard and drowned in a nighttime boating accident. But Dr. McGee testified that Rhodes grabbed his wife by the neck, threw her overboard, and then ran over several times with a boat.

A forensic pathologist testified that Jane Rhodes’ injuries were not inconsistent with an accidental drowning.

Rhodes left prison after serving 25 years. A conviction for manslaughter remains on his record.

Dr. McGee & ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’

Judges have also overturned and vacated murder convictions in two "shaken baby" cases where Dr. McGee’s medical opinion about head trauma, even in the absence of other physical injuries, was key to the filing of criminal charges.

Last year, a Stearns County judge vacated Robert Kaiser’s 2016 second-degree murder conviction because of faulty testimony from Dr. McGee who testified that Kaiser must have shaken his infant son.

In July 2011, a Douglas County judge overturned the conviction of Michael Hansen in the 2006 murder of his infant daughter. The judge said Dr. McGee gave "false or incorrect testimony."

Prosecutors declined to refile charges against Hansen, saying the case was "forensically compromised."

Both men were released from prison.

"That should be a red flag for folks," said Judson. "Because we’re not talking about everybody makes mistakes. We’re talking about an error that actually drove a prosecution."

Role effects bias

But what if Dr. McGee was only part of the problem?

Judson, of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, believes there could also be systemic issues at play.

"When we talk about these tragedies [wrongful convictions], they're in some ways like airline tragedies. It's not one thing that goes wrong. It's one thing that goes wrong, that then goes unchecked or not properly addressed by others," Judson said.

Judson said medical examiners may be prone to give police and prosecutors the answers they seek because of the psychological phenomena known as ‘role effects bias,’ when scientists identify themselves with either the prosecution or defense, rather than as a neutral arbiter of facts.

"That’s a serious concern," said Judson. "When you see yourself as part of particular team, then you want to help your team, right?"

"It’s the system"

In Minnesota, medical examiners not only determine the cause of death, but also the manner of death - accident, homicide, suicide, or undetermined.

Any medical examiner mistake, or over interpretation of evidence, Judson said, could be compounded down the line. It could be adopted as gospel by homicide detectives and prosecutors eager for criminal charges and a conviction.

From there, a judge might inadvertently allow unreliable evidence into a trial, despite protocols for reviewing scientific evidence before it's presented to a jury.

And ultimately, it may be left up to a lone defense attorney to challenge any faulty, yet very scientific sounding evidence that may be persuasive with a jury.

"It’s the system," Judson said. "And I do think experts have a higher obligation to make sure what they say is scientifically accurate and they don’t overstate the science."

His own boss

For more than 35 years, Dr. McGee was considered by many in law enforcement as the go-to expert in forensic science in Minnesota.

In training seminars through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), he helped educate police and prosecutors on the nuances of forensic science.

Dr. McGee served as the Ramsey County Medical Examiner from 1985 to 2019 and worked as a forensic pathologist in the office until he retired in 2021.

In a unique arrangement, he was also his own boss.

Ramsey County considered McGee an independent contractor and in the most recent contract for 2020 paid him $787,000 for his services, plus three assistants, and a flat $150 fee for each autopsy. The county also paid for Dr. McGee’s medical malpractice insurance.

Because he was an independent contractor, and unlike other public officials, Ramsey County doesn’t have any record of complaints, discipline, or other personnel records.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office, for example, are all employees of the county and subject to open public records law.

McGee also consulted, testified, and performed autopsies through his private company serving more than a dozen counties in the metro and greater Minnesota.

Documents filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State indicate the business was shuttered in 2020.

The FOX 9 Investigators have made multiple attempts to reach Dr. McGee through publicly available phone numbers and his professional associations.

He hasn’t issued any comments on his cases since the recent review of his work began.

A spokesperson for Ramsey County said a public records request would be required to receive Dr. McGee’s forwarding address and contact information.