Conviction Review Unit Vacates First and Second-Degree Murder Sentence; Thomas Rhodes Released from Prison after nearly 25 years

Rhodes’ release marks the first person who will be freed from incarceration because of an investigation and case review by Minnesota’s Conviction Review Unit; Rhodes stands convicted of second-degree manslaughter

January 13, 2023 (SAINT PAUL) — The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office today announced it agreed to vacate Thomas Rhodes’ 1998 conviction for first- and second-degree murder. Mr. Rhodes’ release marks the first person who will be freed from incarceration because of an investigation and case review by the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in the Attorney General’s Office.

Mr. Rhodes was found guilty on July 29, 1998, of first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree intentional murder of his wife Jane Rhodes when she fell overboard and ultimately drowned during a nighttime boat ride with Mr. Rhodes on Green Lake in Spicer, Minnesota.

During the 1998 criminal trial, Dr. Michael McGee’s testimony was the lynchpin of the State’s case against Mr. Rhodes, and the State argued that Dr. McGee’s testimony excluded an accidental cause of death. Based on Dr. McGee’s testimony and autopsy report, the State argued that Mr. Rhodes intentionally grabbed his wife by the neck, pushed her overboard, and ran her over multiple times.

Since Dr. McGee’s testimony in Mr. Rhodes’ case, Dr. McGee has faced increasing scrutiny with courts finding several problems with his work over the last two decades. In the recent decisionUnited States v. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a federal judge noted that Dr. McGee “has a well-documented history of providing false or inaccurate testimony in court," and that his testimony in the case was “so unmoored from a scientific basis that it should not have been received at all.”

Following the federal district judge’s opinion in the Rodriguez case calling into severe question the credibility of Dr. McGee’s work over many years, the CRU agreed to investigate Mr. Rhodes’ conviction and prioritized his case.

As part of the CRU’s investigation of the case, a highly respected forensic pathologist and former president of the National Association of Medical Examiners was asked to provide an independent opinion of the cause and manner of death. The independent expert did not agree with many of Dr. McGee’s findings and found that Mrs. Rhodes’ death was not inconsistent with an accidental fall, as Mr. Rhodes maintained. Dr. McGee declined an interview with the CRU. With the benefit of a thorough review of all the evidence and circumstances, the CRU found that the medical evidence used in Mr. Rhodes’s conviction was flawed. 

Prosecutors have a duty not simply to win and protect convictions, but to seek the truth and to respect the defendant’s right to a fair process.  Because of the new forensic analysis and questions surrounding Dr. McGee’s testimony, the conviction does not meet this standard. So, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office agreed with a resolution that vacates Mr. Rhodes’s first- and second-degree murder charges, and a conviction for the lesser included offense of second-degree manslaughter.  

While the State does not have evidence that would prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Rhodes murdered his wife, Jane, there is sufficient evidence to support his conviction of the lesser included offense of second-degree manslaughter. 

The evidence shows that Mr. Rhodes’ negligence led to Jane’s death. Mr. Rhodes drove a small, unstable boat, late at night, at top speed. And Mr. Rhodes knew Jane could not swim. Jane was not wearing a life jacket, and there were no life jackets within reach. The boat contained no flashlights, and no way to quickly call for help. As Mr. Rhodes later admitted, he had become too comfortable around the lake.

While the Attorney General’s Office has agreed that the conviction for murder will be vacated, it has continued to defend a conviction for second-degree manslaughter charges. Mr. Rhodes’ guilty plea cannot bring back Jane Rhodes, who was described by friends and family as full of warmth, kindness, and humor. But Mr. Rhodes has already served nearly 25 years in prison, which is more than twice the maximum sentence he could have received for a manslaughter conviction. 

Background to Minnesota’s Conviction Review Unit 

In October 2020, Attorney General Ellison and the Great North Innocence Project (formerly known as the Innocence Project of Minnesota) announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had awarded the Great North Innocence Project a $300,000 grant to fund the creation of a Conviction Review Unit in partnership with the Attorney General’s office. The CRU operates as part of the Attorney General’s Office and allows the state to review legal cases for people who claim innocence. 

Minnesota is one of only a few in the country that operate on a state-wide basis through an Attorney General’s Office. 

In January 2021, Attorney General Ellison announced the 17 members of The Conviction Review Advisory Board. It is comprised of leading criminal-justice experts, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson; Mark Osler, professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School; and Safe Harbor Director at the Minnesota Department of Health, Caroline Palmer. The Advisory Board also includes Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman.

In April 2021, Carrie Sperling started as the CRU Director.

In June 2021, the CRU Advisory Board ratified one of the most expansive charters in the United States which sets forth the guiding principles, policies governing case review, case review criteria, and other policies governing the CRU. 

In August 2021, the CRU began accepting applications for individuals who claim they are wrongfully convicted. 

In January 2022, the Minneapolis Foundation awarded the CRU a two-year grant to hire a paralegal.

In June 2022, the Poland Family Foundation awarded the CRU $100,000 to hire an investigator.

In September 2022, the CRU’s grant was renewed by the Department of Justice for $500,000.