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John S. Woodward

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Woodward case goes to the jury: Was it revenge or a game of charades?

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER
  • Star Tribune
  • December 6, 2012 - 5:03 PM

In John Woodward's mind, it was the actions of his one-time neighbor, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and two others -- not his own actions -- that landed him in prison in 2007 for multiple felony drug convictions, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster told jurors Thursday morning.

Woodward, 63, formerly of Inver Grove Heights, is on trial in Faribault for conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder against Backstrom and conspiracy to commit first-degree assault against Michelle McPhillips, a former drug associate who testified against him in his drug trial. A third charge of conspiring to kill Dakota County District Judge Rex Stacey, who sentenced him, was dismissed Tuesday by District Judge Thomas Neuville, saying there was not enough evidence to prove a conspiracy.

Woodward is accused of hatching an elaborate plan to have fellow inmate Tom Jackson carry out the murder and maiming when Jackson was released from the Faribault prison in December 2010.

"He wanted revenge," Beaumaster said of Woodward in his closing argument, and 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.

But 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.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Ira Whitlock repeated his assertion that Woodward was "a lamb" to Jackson's "wolf."

"They were playing a game of charades with each other," he said. "That's not a crime."

To convict Woodward of the conspiracy charges, prosecutors have 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.

"How can there be an agreement if two guys don't agree," Whitlock argued Thursday. "The state said Mr. Jackson said he never intended to go through with [the plan]."

Whitlock reminded the jury that several witnesses, including Woodward's wife, Cindy, testified on his behalf, saying that Woodward was "a good man, a good husband and kind to a fault."

As for Jackson, "Nobody had a anything good to say about him. He's unkind of a fault," Whitlock said. "He lies to everybody. ... He lied to you."

Woodward went along with the plan because he wanted Jackson, a "jailhouse lawyer," to continue to help him with his legal work and because he was terrified of Jackson, Whitlock said.

Woodward tried to back out of the plan numerous times and was heard on recordings saying, "I just want you to focus on getting me out."

Prosecutors said Woodward hired a private investigator and another man to find McPhillips and when he had her address, he gave it to Jackson. He told Jackson 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.

Getting her address was the overt act, he said.

"Once the overt acts were done, you can't withdraw," Beaumaster said in his rebuttal. "Mr. Woodward wanted revenge. He wanted to get out of prison, too, but he wanted revenge even more."

The jury of seven men and five women began deliberations about 2 p.m. Thursday.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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