Michael Hansen remembers feeling numb as he watched a fellow jail inmate's testimony help prosecutors convict him 15 years ago for the murder of his young daughter that he did not commit.
"I just kept thinking someone's going to fix this," Hansen said. "Someone's got to fix this — this isn't the way my life was going to go. This isn't the way my life is going to end."
Hansen spent six years in prison before the Innocence Project helped exonerate him in 2011, largely thanks to testimony from forensic experts. His ordeal meanwhile put him in a grim club, making him one of nearly 200 wrongful convictions nationwide that researchers have attributed to the use of false testimony by jailhouse witnesses.
Minnesota lawmakers and advocates from across the political spectrum now hope legislation passed this year can wipe out cases where unreliable jailhouse witness testimony helps wrongfully convict people. The new regulations follow eyewitness identification reforms and are part of an ongoing push to remedy wrongful convictions that includes a new statewide conviction review unit led by the Attorney General's Office.
"This legislation is meaningful because it provides more transparency and trust in the criminal system," Attorney General Keith Ellison said. "The credibility of any witness is relevant to any trial. The jury has a right to know about the witnesses testifying so they have the full story and can come to a just and fair conclusion."
A panel of national experts that recommended releasing Myon Burrell from prison following his conviction for the bystander killing of a Minneapolis child cited numerous concerns over jailhouse witness testimony in his case in a report last year. Ellison's initiative is now reviewing Burrell's case.
Minnesota is now the eighth state to pass new safeguards aimed at curbing cases in which inmates offer unreliable testimony in exchange for leniency, in some cases doing so repeatedly against multiple defendants.
The legislation received little fanfare but advanced as part of the state's new public safety spending bill. Prosecutors are now required to disclose past behavior of jail informants that will be part of a database to track their conduct and any trends that can help better assess their credibility before they can take the stand.
Sara Jones, executive director of the Great North Innocence Project, which pushed for the new regulations, said the link between false witness testimony and wrongful convictions is "something that we've known is a problem."
"These are people who testify against defendants with the expectation of getting leniency or some sort of deal in their own case — which can be an incentive for them to lie," Jones said.
Bob Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said he is not aware of examples of prosecutors misusing jailhouse witness testimony.
"Nothing has been presented to us that suggests county attorneys are not meeting their obligations," Small said. "However, if this data calls to our attention that we are somehow falling short of meeting those obligations, I think it moves toward addressing some perceived injustices. County attorneys can never be against fixing an injustice, and we aren't."
The new legislation is the latest in a trend of bipartisan criminal justice initiatives passing the divided Minnesota Legislature. State Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored the measure in the House and helps lead the bipartisan criminal justice caucus formed last year to find common ground on legislation to improve the state's justice system. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, sponsored the Senate version.
"Nobody in Minnesota wants innocent people punished for crimes they didn't commit," Long said. "I think we are at a point where we are realizing that there are improvements to our justice system to make sure that doesn't happen or at least minimize the risk of that happening."
Ingebrigtsen said that while jailhouse witnesses can be a valuable resource for investigating cases, "it is important people are able to have confidence in those witnesses, and placing safeguards around their use will help do so."
"We also need to remember the victims of the jailhouse witness — they were incarcerated for a crime and the victims in those crimes deserve to know when the sentences in their cases were modified based on the witness' participation in another case," he said.
County attorneys' offices must now complete reports when using jailhouse witness testimony and must disclose any benefits offered to these witnesses. They must disclose any other cases in which a witness testified or cases in which a witness previously recanted testimony. Victims of jailhouse witnesses' crimes will be notified when the witness receives leniency or benefits in exchange for testimony.
Hansen is as grateful to the Innocence Project for taking up his case as he is dumbfounded at what happened to him.
He awoke one morning at his home in Alexandria in 2004 to find his 3 ½-month-old daughter, Avryonna, unresponsive. A medical examiner later ruled that the baby died from blunt force trauma, and Hansen was charged with second-degree murder.
Avryonna fell to the ground in a Walmart parking lot about a week before her death, and the Innocence Project's forensic experts helped win Hansen's release by showing that the baby's skull fracture had already begun healing before her death and that she more likely died from positional asphyxia.
Hansen said he kept to himself in jail while awaiting trial and heeded the advice of his attorney and family not to talk about his case with others. But he said it was easy for inmates to overhear phone calls with family and attorneys at the jail.
Prosecutors leaned on testimony from a jail inmate who described Hansen opening up to him about drinking and smoking marijuana in the hours before his daughter died. The inmate said Hansen complained about the girl crying and made statements that suggested he killed his daughter.
Hansen remembers the inmate often asking about his case and urging him to write down details about it. But he insists he never discussed the case with the man.
Today, Hansen owns Kinship Collective Tattoo in Northfield and lives nearby in Dennison with two young sons. His oldest daughter — Avryonna's sister — is now living on her own, he added. And Hansen is engaged to be married. The family camps a lot, he said, and his oldest son is following his father's interest in BMX racing.
Hansen is one of 17 Minnesotans exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The state later awarded Hansen $917,000 in compensation.
He's hopeful that the new legislation can prevent future cases like his. But spending six years in prison on a conviction for killing his baby daughter left emotional scars that required another six years of therapy, he said.
"It was hard for me: I wanted to save my life but there was this big part of me that needed to save my daughter's name," Hansen said. "That's not what happened to her. I don't want people to believe that and I don't want her to be remembered that way. She was only here a short amount of time."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755