County attorney's neighbor attempted murder-for-hire.
If John S. Woodward hadn't harbored so much hate for his onetime neighbor Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, he'd be eligible to be released from prison and reunited with his family on March 18, 2014. Instead, he'll spend at least a decade more than that behind locked doors.
Woodward, who turns 50 on Sunday, was sentenced to 16 years in prison Friday for conspiring to murder Backstrom, the man who initiated the investigation that resulted in his conviction in 2007 for felony drug crimes, including selling methamphetamine. He will have to serve at least two-thirds of that time before he is eligible for release.
A jury in Rice County District Court in Faribault convicted Woodward in December of conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder against Backstrom. He was acquitted of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault against Michelle McPhillips, a former drug associate who helped convict him of the drug charges. A third charge of conspiring to murder Dakota County District Judge Rex Stacey, who sentenced him, was dismissed during the trial.
"As you might suspect, this crime has had a significant adverse impact upon me and my family," Backstrom said at Friday's hearing. "It has caused my wife and children to fear for my safety, and quite frankly, to fear for their own safety as well."
Backstrom told Judge Thomas Neuville, "It is important for the court to recognize that this crime was committed by a man who has never accepted responsibility for his own criminal behavior. He instead blames me ... for problems he brought upon himself through his own actions."
Annalise Backstrom, Backstrom's daughter, told the judge that she used to baby sit Woodward's children. The whole thing "still seems unreal to me ... the house I lived in for years will never feel completely comfortable again."
The former Inver Grove Heights man was in the Faribault prison in 2010 when he was accused of hatching a plan to hire fellow inmate Tom Jackson to carry out the murders and assault when Jackson was released from prison in December 2010.
At the trial, Jackson testified that he never intended to carry out the plan and went to authorities when he realized Woodward was serious. Jurors heard audio and video recordings of the two. Unknown to Woodward, Jackson wore a recording device as the two talked about the plan in the prison yard. Woodward had his wife, Cindy, transfer a $2,500 down payment for Jackson to an attorney who did legal work for both men.
Speaking on Friday, Woodward continued to insist on his innocence, saying the plan to kill Backstrom was just so much talk. "People do a lot of talking in prison. I talked a lot of trash, but I've never hurt another person in my life."
Woodward maintains that the conspiracy charges were a plot against him by the government and that his attorney and others, including the media, were in on it. In a letter to the Star Tribune on Jan. 9, Woodward repeated his assertion that prosecutors cut out portions of the tapes that would have exonerated him. At the trial, Woodward said he was set up by Jackson, and he continued to talk about the alleged plot because he was afraid Jackson would hurt or kill him.
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284