Jury finds high-profile death plot in Dakota County was real

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2012 - 9:33 PM

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom was intended target.

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Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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An Inver Grove Heights man harbored enough hate for his former neighbor to plot his murder, jurors decided Friday in the culmination of a highly unusual case -- because the neighbor was Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

John Woodward, 63, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder against Backstrom. He was acquitted, however, of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault against Michelle McPhillips, a former drug associate who helped convict him of felony drug charges in 2007.

A third charge -- conspiracy to commit premeditated murder against Dakota County District Judge Rex Stacey, who sentenced him on the drug convictions -- was dismissed earlier in the week by Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville.

The trial in Faribault, Minn., lasted seven days. Neuville will sentence Woodward on Jan. 18. Taking into consideration Woodward's drug convictions, state guidelines call for a sentence of more than 18 years.

"I am grateful for the verdict of the Rice County jury today, and I wish to express my appreciation to the Rice County Attorney's Office for their hard work in obtaining this conviction," Backstrom said in a written statement. He said he would refrain from commenting further until sentencing.

Woodward was in the Faribault state prison in 2010 when he was accused of hatching a plan to hire fellow inmate Tom Jackson, a career criminal, to carry out the murders and assault when Jackson was released from prison in December 2010.

In Woodward's mind, it was the actions of Backstrom and the two others -- not his own -- that landed him in prison on the drug charges, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster told the jury in his closing argument on Thursday.

"He wanted revenge," Beaumaster said. That thirst for revenge motivated him to draw a map showing Backstrom's home and his own. It showed the route Backstrom drove each morning to work, an alternate spot Jackson could use if he missed the first shot, bushes or snowbanks where he could hide, ponds where he could get rid of the gun and a gas station where he could catch a cab to the airport.

Jackson testified last week that he never intended to kill anybody. On June 30, 2010, about 25 days after Woodward drew the map, Jackson went to prison officials, who in turn went to Faribault police and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Jackson agreed to wear a recording device and jurors saw and heard conversations about the plan between the men in the prison's day room and yard.

To convict Woodward of the conspiracy charges, prosecutors had to prove that there was an agreement between Woodward and Jackson and that Woodward made "overt acts" to carry out the conspiracies. Those overt acts were the map, giving it to Jackson and having his wife transfer a down payment of $2,500 for Jackson to an attorney who did legal work for both men. Woodward told his wife the money was for continuing legal work.

Woodward was "clearly upset" with the guilty verdict, defense attorney Ira Whitlock said, yet is "prepared for the next step."

Whitlock said they plan to file a motion asking for a new trial. He said the judge prohibited him from telling the jury in his closing argument that it was Neuville himself who dismissed the charge concerning Judge Stacey. He said that was "a very serious prejudicial error to me ... from the standpoint that the defendant has a right to use everything in his favor to defend himself."

In his closing argument, Whitlock tried to portray Woodward as "a lamb" to Jackson's "wolf."

"This is a case of prison lies gone wild," he repeatedly told the jury. "They were playing a game of charades with each other," he said. "That's not a crime."

Woodward also hired a private investigator and another man to find McPhillips' address. Jackson said Woodward told him to contact her in March 2010 under the pretense of offering her a job, then take her into the woods, beat her and "leave her there like a bag of trash," Beaumaster told the jury.

But the jury apparently didn't believe that was enough of an overt act to convict him of conspiring to assault her.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-328

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