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A nonprofit law firm specializing in overturning wrongful convictions is asking a Ramsey County judge to unseal records in the 2009 murder case of an Inver Grove Heights woman, citing "rising concerns of unreliable, misleading, and/or false testimony" in other cases involving the medical examiner who performed the autopsy.

In a court filing, lawyers for the Great North Innocence Project say they need the full cache of autopsy records to complete a review of the evidence that led to the conviction of Michael Sontoya, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the sexual assault and murder of Gabriela Romo.

The doctor who conducted Romo's autopsy and testified in the trial is Michael McGee — the former chief medical examiner in Ramsey County whose "medically unsupported testimony" wrongfully sent another man, Thomas Rhodes, to prison for 25 years, according to an investigation by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. Since his release last year, Rhodes has filed a lawsuit accusing McGee of fabricating medical conclusions and providing false testimony in the 1996 drowning death of his wife.

McGee's Ramsey County case history, dating back four decades, is under review by County Attorney John Choi's office and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

"Given Dr. McGee's documented history of providing inaccurate testimony in court, we agree with both the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General and the Ramsey County Attorney's Office that convictions based largely on his testimony deserve scrutiny," Great North Innocence Project attorney James Mayer told the Star Tribune this week.

A hearing on the request to unseal the records is scheduled for May 20. Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for Choi's office, said the office will not oppose the motion, but that decision "does not reflect our position about whether the individual may be entitled to relief."

McGee and his attorneys didn't respond to a request for comment to this and other recent Star Tribune stories on questions about his work.

After four days of testimony in his 2009 trial, a jury convicted Sontoya, then 32, of first-degree murder while committing a sexual assault and second-degree murder while committing felony assault in Romo's death.

The Great North Innocence Project is seeking to open records in a 2009 murder case. Michael Sontoya is serving life without parole.
The Great North Innocence Project is seeking to open records in a 2009 murder case. Michael Sontoya is serving life without parole.

Isabella Sontoya

Sontoya and Romo had known each other since childhood. In September 2008, Sontoya picked up Romo from her parents' house. They had drinks at Fabulous Fern's in St. Paul, then went back to Sontoya's apartment on St. Paul's West Side.

In the morning, Romo was dead. McGee testified she had bled to death as a result of "multiple traumatic injuries due to a sexual assault," including a 14-inch tear inside her body that damaged her liver, diaphragm and spleen. McGee ruled the death a homicide.

Sontoya has maintained his innocence. He told police he found Romo dead after a night of "totally consensual" sex. Sontoya's defense attorney didn't hire an independent medical expert, and in appeals Sontoya argued he didn't get a fair trial because McGee's opinion went unchallenged.

In 2010, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed Sontoya's guilty conviction, calling the evidence "overwhelming." Two justices took issue with McGee's testimony that Romo's death resulted from injuries "due to a sexual assault," saying he improperly testified to legal conclusions that had not been proven by the prosecutors. But the judges concluded the error did not affect the case's outcome and affirmed the guilty verdict.

Credibility questions

Questions about McGee's credibility have piled up: At least four people have either been released from prison or resentenced to a lower penalty after McGee's testimony was found to be inaccurate or flawed, according to court records.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office has contracted with the Prosecutors' Center for Excellence to review all Ramsey County cases dating back to the 1980s where McGee's testimony was central to a conviction. At this stage, 71 cases are in review. Gerhardstein said the office is not commenting on whether any particular case is part of their review.

Choi's office launched the review, more comprehensive than prior reviews of McGee's work, after a federal judge questioned McGee's testimony in the case of Alfonso Rodriguez, the man sentenced to death in North Dakota for kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing college student Dru Sjodin.

The judge said Rodriguez had clearly kidnapped and murdered Sjodin, but said McGee's testimony that she had been sexually assaulted — a factor prosecutors used to ask for the death penalty — was not rooted in science. The judge vacated the death sentence for Rodriguez.