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For Northfield Man, 'Making A Murderer' Hits Close To Home

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A runaway hit series on Netflix has viewers taking on the role of judge and jury.

Legal experts agree "Making a Murderer" has put our justice system under the microscope. The documentary focuses on Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and freed, only to go back to prison 20 years later for a murder he says he didn't commit.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project worked to free Avery in his first case through DNA testing. WCCO goes inside Minnesota's chapter and shares the story of a man who knows what it's like to serve time for something he didn't do.

As a business owner in Northfield's bustling downtown, you'd likely never know all Michael Hansen has been through.

"It changes you for the rest of your life," he said.

The owner of Kinship Collective Tattoos, Hansen served six years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of killing his daughter, Avery.

"I was sleeping in bed with her," he said. "She was sleeping right next to me."

Medical experts found the 3-month-old died in 2004 of accidental suffocation while she slept on her stomach. At Hansen's trial, Ramsey County's Medical Examiner called her death a homicide due to a skull fracture, despite the fact that it had already been documented how Avery fell from a shopping cart days before her death.

Tucked inside a small building on Hamline's campus in St. Paul, the Minnesota Innocent Project paved the way for Hansen's release. Bookshelves of boxes and files fill rooms, all prisoners in Minnesota, North or South Dakota pleading their innocence.

Julie Jonas is the Legal Director of the Minnesota Innocence Project.

"We work with people who are claiming that they're actually innocent to do re-investigations of their cases and prove their innocence," she said. "We also work to prevent wrongful convictions in the future."

The nonprofit hears from at least 300 people behind bars each year, pushing it to take their case. The organization is currently investigating 40 convictions, working through some for more than a decade.

Five are in litigation -- meaning the Minnesota Innocence Project is certain those prisoners are innocent.

"It's a significant amount of work to undo a criminal conviction," Jonas said.

Since the release of "Making a Murderer," this office has heard from even more people hoping for freedom. While the women won't comment on Steven Avery's guilt or innocence, the organization believes there is great value in all that's happened since the show's release.

"What I think it has highlighted for the average person is the potential problems in the criminal justice system," Jonas said.

Heather Ring is Executive Director at the Minnesota Innocence Project.

"I think it gets down to the core of what liberty means of what the system means," Ring said.

Hansen has taken Steven Avery's story personally.

"There are people putting these people away like its nothing," he said. "There's prosecutors that want to win no matter what and that's not the way it should be. It shouldn't be a win or lose -- everyone is losing. When you get to court, everyone is losing."

Five years after murder charges against him were dropped, Hansen is still getting his life back together. He's engaged and has a new son, never forgetting how fast it could be taken away.

"It's a sad thing when a lot of things can be missed and someone's life will be lost," he said. "That's the truth of it. I'll never be the same."

Past studies have shown one- to five-percent of prisoners are innocent. On the low end, that's 20,000 people in the United States. Last year, Minnesota adopted a wrongful-conviction compensation law.

Hansen is one of three Minnesotans who will get at least $50,000 for each year spent in prison.

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