For nearly 20 years, Thomas Rhodes, 56, has maintained his innocence in the 1996 Green Lake boating death of his wife, Jane Rhodes.
During a nighttime jet-powered boat ride, according to the prosecution’s evidence, Rhodes choked his wife, threw her from the boat and then struck her with the boat at least twice.
Since his 1998 first-degree premeditated murder conviction and subsequent life prison sentence, he has appealed his conviction four times.
Each appeal was denied.
Most recently Rhodes was denied petitions for both access to evidence and a new trial in 2014.
So Rhodes challenged the denial of his fourth appeal, saying the court’s 2014 denial was abuse of discretion.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court maintained the postconviction court’s denials of Rhodes’s two most recent appeals. The court said his appeals were untimely, and that the appeals court was correct to originally deem them as such.
In 2005, an amendment to Minnesota’s postconviction relief law added a two-year statute of limitations for appeals after convictions, unless new evidence is introduced.
Because Rhodes’s conviction happened prior to that amendment, his statute of limitations expired two years after the amendment, in 2007.
So the two-year statute of limitations had expired by the time Rhodes filed his third and fourth postconviction petitions.
But in Rhodes’ 2014 petition, he claimed he had new evidence of alleged scientific knowledge new to the case regarding the victim’s head injuries.
He argued that scientific evidence showed that injuries the court had previously deemed as evidence for Rhodes’s conviction, such as anterior neck hemorrhages, could also be the result of the drowning process, not necessarily external pressure.
Rhodes also pointed to an alleged false-testimony based on a 2006 lake survey report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The report alleges that the State’s witness in the case, Captain Chandler, testified the wrong temperature of Green Lake on the night of the drowning. The DNR report said the temperature of Green Lake in August 1996 was 68.9 degrees. Chandler testified it was 39 degrees.
But the court didn’t accept it as new evidence.
“The dates of the reports conclusively establish that Rhodes ‘knew or should have known’ of the claims raised in his third petition more than 2 years before he filed his third postconviction petition,” Justice Wilhelmina Wright wrote in the Minnesota Supreme Court’s opinion.
Justices Barry Anderson and David Lillehaug dissented in the court’s decision. Justice Natalie Hudson did not take part in the decision because she was not a member of the court at the time of submission.
“Here, the newly discovered evidence, if proven to be true, and considered in the light most favorable to Rhodes, would establish by a clear and-convincing standard that no reasonable jury would have convicted Rhodes of first degree premeditated murder beyond a reasonable doubt had the newly discovered evidence been presented at trial,” Anderson wrote.
He said he would reverse the decision and grant an evidentiary hearing.
But in the majority opinion, the court said an evidentiary trial wasn’t necessary, because the evidence wouldn’t have changed the outcome in the case.
“A postconviction evidentiary hearing is not required when the petitioner alleges facts that, if true, are legally insufficient to grant the requested relief,” Wright wrote.
Even without any medical evidence, Wright said, Rhodes’s murder conviction is independently supported, based on “physical and motive evidence, testimony, and inconsistencies in Rhodes’s statements.”
“In sum, Rhodes has not raised a material factual dispute that would establish his innocence under a clear and convincing standard,” Wright said.
Rhodes remains incarcerated, serving a life sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility- Oak Park Heights in Stillwater.