There's no doubt that John Stephen Woodward harbored a boatload of anger and resentment toward his former neighbor Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, District Judge Rex Stacey and a former drug associate who helped send him to prison in 2007 for multiple felony drug convictions.

But did he hire fellow inmate Thomas Jackson to kill the prosecutor and judge and maim the witness? Or did Jackson entrap Woodward and prison officials alike in his own elaborate shell game?

Those questions are at the heart of a trial that started Thursday before Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville. Woodward is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder and one of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault.

Neuville will decide Friday morning whether the state can present several handwritten notes discussing the plot that prosecutors say passed between Woodward and Jackson via other inmates.

On the witness stand Thursday, Jackson said he knew the notes came from Woodward because he recognized his handwriting. But defense attorney Ira Whitlock said the notes appeared to contain several different types of handwriting and could be part of a con that Jackson, a "career convict," was running on Woodward.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Ben Bejar laid out the state's theory of the case for the jury:

Woodward was in the Faribault prison in the spring of 2010 when he hired fellow inmate Thomas Jackson to kill the trio, starting with Backstrom, whom he believed had "abused taxpayers' money" by having Woodward investigated by the county's Drug Task Force.

He drew a detailed map showing the route Backstrom took to work each day, bushes where Jackson could hide, ponds where he could throw the weapons and a gas station where Jackson could catch a cab back to the airport and make his escape.

Woodward had his wife send a $2,500 down payment to Jackson through an attorney who had done work for both men. After Backstrom was dead, Woodward was to send two more payments of $3,750 each to Jackson's sisters in Maryland and West Virginia.

If the Backstrom killing went as planned Dec. 14, the day Jackson was to be released, then Jackson was to find Woodward's former drug associate Michelle McPhillips and break her arms and legs with a baseball bat. If that succeeded, Stacey, who presided over Woodward's drug trial, was to be shot in the head in August in Sturgis, S.D.

Woodward called all three of his potential victims "scum of the Earth," Bejar told the jury.

Whitlock, however, told the jury in his opening that there was no conspiracy, there was no scheme, there was no actual plan to kill anybody.

"It's a fabrication," he said. "This case is about prison lies gone wild. It's about credibility and accountability."

The prosecution's star witness, Jackson, saw Woodward as a lamb and himself as a wolf, Whitlock said.

"When a wolf sees a lamb, what does he do? He attacks," Whitlock told jurors.

Jackson, who is serving time in a Maryland prison, said he believed Woodward would pay "up to $30,000" for the three jobs. But Jackson said he never intended to kill anyone. When the down payment was made, Jackson said, he realized Woodward was serious and contacted a Department of Corrections investigator.

Jackson agreed to wear a recording device, and jurors spent much of Tuesday afternoon listening to barely audible recordings of Woodward and Jackson talking about the plot.

At one point in the audio recording, Woodward appears to back off the plan.

"Ya know what? Let's just get me outta here. When I'm outta here, all's good."

He first offered Jackson an extra $1,000, then an extra "10,000" to get him out of prison.

Woodward is incarcerated at the state's maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights. The trial is expected to last at least through the middle of next week.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284