Last Friday, a Minnesota man named Thomas Rhodes walked out of prison after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. A recent Notre Dame Law School graduate, Anna McGinn ’22 J.D., played a key role in the final stage of his release.
McGinn is working with the Great North Innocence Project for two years as a Bank of America Foundation Fellow — one of the public-interest legal fellowships granted each year to members of Notre Dame Law School’s graduating class.
She met her client Rhodes on Friday when he was released from Moose Lake Correctional Center in northern Minnesota. In his case, McGinn wrote the motion and memorandum in support of post-conviction relief, on the basis that the state violated Brady when it withheld exculpatory impeachment evidence from Rhodes at trial.
“I played a small role in his release, but I did assist in completing this final step of his tortuous journey.” McGinn said. “But this is not about me. It is about Tom and his family, and the absolute tragedy and miscarriage of justice.”
Rhodes’ wife drowned in 1996 while they were on a family vacation at a Minnesota lake. In 1998, he was found guilty of first- and second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, though he always maintained that his wife fell off their boat by accident during a nighttime ride. He told authorities how he jumped into the water in an attempt to save his wife, but he was unable to find her in the darkness. Witnesses corroborated his account, noting that they saw him drenched and running for help once on shore. The couple’s two sons, who were 14 and 9 at the time of the incident, have also supported their father’s assertion that the drowning was no more than a tragic accident.
The Great North Innocence Project has represented Rhodes since 2013. McGinn is one of at least eight attorneys, not to mention dozens of students from the University of Minnesota and Mitchell Hamline law schools, who have worked on the case.
The Minnesota Conviction Review Unit, a partnership between the Great North Innocence Project and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, undertook a comprehensive review of Rhodes’ case. Investigations by the Great North team and the Conviction Review Unit found significant issues with testimony that was key to the state’s case against Rhodes in the 1990s.
Under an agreement with the prosecutor, the state district court vacated Rhodes’ first- and second-degree murder convictions. However, he will have a second-degree manslaughter conviction on his record for driving his boat in a negligent manner. The manslaughter charge would have required him to serve about two and a half years in prison — one-tenth of the amount of time he actually ended up serving.
“There are so many men like Tom out there,” McGinn said. “But I can take great comfort in knowing that Tom is playing with his six lovely grandsons, and holding his sons’ hands once again.”
McGinn expressed gratitude to Notre Dame and the Bank of America Foundation for providing her with an opportunity to do this important work.
“I wouldn’t be experiencing this joy without my education at Notre Dame Law School and the Bank of America Foundation Fellowship,” she said. “This was the greatest accomplishment of my life, and I am indebted to everyone at Notre Dame who provided me with the opportunity to use my degree to help people in this way.”
Read more about Thomas Rhodes’ case on the Great North Innocence Project’s website.