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County attorney's actions questioned

A complaint has been filed against Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom for a chain of e-mails that played a role in a defense witness' decision to not testify at a murder trial.

Backstrom denies any wrongdoing in the case.

The case was at trial in November 2008 and involved Nicole Beecroft, who was accused of stabbing her newborn daughter more than 100 times.

Backstrom did not prosecute the case, which was contested in Washington County.

The complaint alleges Backstrom wrote Dakota County medical examiner Dr. Lindsey Thomas three times before and during the trial. He wrote he did not agree with the county's medical examiners working for and testifying for defense attorneys.

In the Beecroft case, Dr. Susan Roe was working for the defense as an expert and potential witness. Roe and Thomas work for the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office, based at Regina Medical Center in Hastings.

Roe did not testify in the case. Beecroft's attorney in the case, Luke Stellpflug, said Backstrom's letter to Thomas, her superior, "had an impact" on her decision not to testify.

The rift between the county attorney's office and the medical examiner's office on this issue apparently dates back years. At issue is whether the county's medical examiners should work on the side as paid defense witnesses. That issue is at the heart of the case.

In one e-mail to Thomas, Backstrom urged the medical examiner's office to stop testifying for the defense.

"If you continue do so, I am giving you the courtesy of letting you know that neither the sheriff or I will be in a position to continue to support your appointment as the Dakota County coroner," he wrote.

Backstrom issued a press release in which he stated that "there is no merit to any of the allegations" in the complaint.

"This complaint references my communications with the Dakota County Medical Examiner relating to a legitimate public policy concern I have had for some time regarding certain practices of that office," Backstrom said. "The Dakota County Medical Examiner, who was not directly involved in a Washington County murder trial, which was under way last November, chose to share my concerns with others involved in that trial. This information ultimately reached the public defenders involved in that case who attempted to make it an issue in that trial. It was not my intent to impact this Washington County trial in any way.

"Upon learning that allegations to the contrary were being made, I immediately responded to the parties in that case to clarify my earlier correspondence to the Dakota County Medical Examiner."

The complaint was filed with the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, which keeps such complaints confidential unless a panel finds probable cause for public discipline.

The practice

For Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson, the prospect of county officials testifying for defense attorneys is troublesome, to say the least.

He sees it a conflict of interest.

"I think that it is flat out wrong for them to do that," he said Tuesday. "They don't view the body. They review the report and then take the opposite point of view. I'm suspicious of that.

"I think it is wrong for them to testify in cases that are not in their jurisdiction and not part of their work."

Gudmundson said he and Backstrom met with Thomas a few years ago to question the practice.

"We have a past history of our coroner/medical examiner testifying in child cases, in particular, in our county," Gudmundson said. "In one instance, they even testified in our county against us.

"We met at great lengths with Dr. Thomas to straighten this out several years ago. I thought that in that meeting with Dr. Thomas we had this cleared up and that it was not to happen again. I guess my understanding was incorrect.

"They were going to do this, no matter what, for the money."

In addition to the matter being a conflict of interest in Gudmundson's eyes, he said he worries about damaging the reputation of his examiners.

"If they are wrong when they testify, and the judge rules, 'No, the child didn't die the way you say it did,' isn't that a way to impeach them the next time they testify?"

So far as Gudmundson knows, the practice of having county officials testify for defense attorneys is unique to the area.

"I don't think you'd get the medical examiner in Detroit to testify against the prosecution," Gudmundson said. "I don't think you'd get the medical examiner in Chicago to testify for the defense, either. But, here, we do.

"Do I think defendants have the right to the best defense possible? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean they should use the medical examiner from Dakota County to testify for the defense. I'm very suspicious."

As for his colleague, Gudmundson is convinced he did nothing wrong.

"Mr. Backstrom didn't do anything wrong," he said. "He is someone who the word integrity exemplifies. There are a whole lot of defense attorneys who resent that word."

The other side

Stellpflug, the defense attorney who hired Roe, sees things much differently than Gudmundson.

Autopsies are handled by medical examiners and forensic pathologists, who are contracted by the county. In order for the defense to ever use a medical examiner as a witness, they'd have to be a county employee.

It's rare for the defense to use a medical examiner, Stellpflug said, but only because most fear repercussions.

"In my experience, no, (it's not common)" he said. "We can't get these people to agree to come on board. There's an unspoken, 'My county is going to be (mad) at me if I do.'"

Stellpflug disagrees that medical examiners lose credibility if they work with defense teams, and he does not agree that it is a conflict of interest.

"I wholly disagree with it being a conflict of interest," he said. "Would it be inappropriate for any of these doctors ... to be doing work for me as an employee on office time? Absolutely. But when they work for us, they don't stop being doctors. They don't stop being a board certified forensic pathologist."

As for the credibility issue, Stellpflug said a county official who only testifies for the county loses his or her effect as a witness.

"The position I would take is this: if county employees occasionally testify for the defense, it enhances their credibility as a witness," he said.

Thomas said Tuesday all her office is trying to do is ensure everyone has "access to credible witnesses and good forensic pathologists. That's what we're trying to provide."