Minnesota man goes free after 1998 murder conviction vacated
Prosecution errors freed Thomas Rhodes from prison and overturned his murder convictions Friday. A memo found in the prosecution's files last year contributed to his release.
WILLMAR, Minn. — Thomas Daniel Rhodes walked out of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake, Minnesota, Friday morning, Jan. 13, after a judge vacated two 1998 murder convictions.
He had served 24-1/2 years in prison.
Rhodes, now 63, was convicted of murder by a Kandiyohi County jury in the drowning death of his wife Jane Rhodes, 36, on Green Lake on Aug. 2, 1996.
Rhodes appealed the first- and second-degree murder convictions several times and always maintained his innocence.
Once the paperwork was processed, he was released, to be greeted by his family, including two sons and six grandchildren, and his large legal team, said Hayley Drozdowski-Poxleitner, director of communications for the Great North Innocence Project .
The Innocence Project had been involved in Rhodes’ case since 2013, she said.
The Rhodes family, from Mankato, was on vacation in Spicer, Minnesota, in 1996 when the couple decided to go for a late-night boat ride. Jane Rhodes fell off the boat and couldn't be found. A fisherman found her body the next day.
Judge Thomas Van Hon vacated the murder convictions in a remote Kandiyohi County District Court hearing Friday morning. He overturned the verdicts based on evidence that had not been shared with the defense and mistaken expert testimony.
Rhodes on Friday pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter — culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk. He entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but admits there is enough evidence for a conviction at trial.
Rhodes agreed under Assistant Attorney General David Voigt’s questioning that neither of them wore flotation devices, though he knew his wife wasn’t a good swimmer.
He said he’d told Kandiyohi County detectives there was no light but moonlight, and wind was causing waves on the lake. He didn’t have a flashlight on the boat, and the boat didn’t have a headlight. He drove the boat about 40 mph and didn’t slow down when his wife stood up in the boat.
Van Hon accepted the Alford plea, sentenced Rhodes to four years on the manslaughter charge and gave him credit for time served, allowing his release.
Rhodes’ voice shook at times as he answered questions from the judge, Voigt and defense attorney Julie Jonas from the Innocence Project. The prosecution and defense had filed a joint petition seeking to have the convictions overturned.
After Van Hon vacated the earlier convictions, Rhodes wiped his eyes behind the dark glasses he wore during parts of the hearing.
During his 1998 trial, friends and relatives offered personal testimony about Jane Rhodes’ fear of the water and about perceived problems in their marriage. Witnesses spoke of hearing loud voices on Green Lake that night.
But perhaps some of the most important testimony came from Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputy Captain William Chandler and Dr. Michael McGee of the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Chandler testified about water temperature and how it could have affected the movement of Jane Rhodes’ body after she drowned. It led him to claim that Rhodes misled searchers about where his wife had fallen into the water.
The Innocence Project investigators found that the water had been about 30 degrees warmer, and the warmer water would have affected how the body moved in the lake.
McGee, whose testimony has been discredited in other trials in recent years, testified that Jane Rhodes’ injuries were caused by her husband hitting her to knock her out of the boat and hitting her with the boat while she was in the water. Months before trial, McGee told then Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue that he couldn’t be sure how Jane Rhodes sustained all her injuries. Beccue wrote a memo about the interview, and placed it in the files related to the trial.
The memo was never shared with the defense, though it could have been used in questioning McGee.
Even though Rhodes had filed previous appeals, the memo wasn’t found until the Minnesota Conviction Review Unit took up the case last year. The unit is a partnership of the attorney general’s office and Innocence Project, and reviews cases where there is a strong indication that a defendant is innocent.
At Friday’s hearing, Voigt said the memo was found in the prosecutor’s file, but there was no indication that the prosecutor intentionally withheld it and may have never been aware of it.
Drozdowski-Poxleitner said she was at the prison to see Rhodes released. “He’s so thrilled to join his family again and be a grandfather,” she said. “It’s a wonderful day; it’s why we do this work.”
In a release from the Innocence Project, Rhodes said, “I look forward to hugging my sons Eric and Jason, being a good grandfather to my six wonderful grandkids and having time to create new memories with family and friends.”
In a statement, he thanked his sons for their years of love and support and for believing in him. They were 14 and 9 when he was convicted.
He thanked his legal team, too. Jonas led a team of at least eight pro bono attorneys and numerous law students from the University of Minnesota and Mitchell Hamline law schools.
“I have always believed deeply in Thomas’ innocence, and I am so happy for him to be reunited with his family,” Jonas said in the release. She credited his release with the work of the Conviction Review Unit, whose work helped overcome procedural technicalities.
Rhodes’ sons always believed their mother’s death was a tragic accident, according to the release.
In a statement, Eric Rhodes thanked the Innocence Project and said, “Without them, my dad would be in prison for many more years. We are so thankful to have him back in our lives.”