Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom is under investigation by the state agency that oversees lawyer conduct, based on a complaint from public defenders who said he sent e-mails that may have coerced a defense witness to withdraw from Nicole Beecroft's murder trial.

Beecroft, 19, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in December to life in prison for stabbing her newborn daughter 135 times.

The trial was held before a Washington County judge; Backstrom was not the prosecutor.

According to Luke Stellpflug, one of Bee-croft's public defenders, much of the case hinged on whether Bee-croft's baby was born alive, and the defense attorneys had asked forensic investigators, including Dr. Susan Roe, an assistant medical examiner for Dakota County, to review the autopsy conducted by investigators with the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office.

Before and during the trial, Stellpflug said, Backstrom sent three e-mails to Roe's boss, Dakota County medical examiner Lindsey Thomas, questioning the practice of medical examiners, often witnesses for the prosecution, testifying or working with defense attorneys.

In one of those e-mails, Backstrom questioned future support of Thomas' appointment as county medical examiner if the practice continued, Stellpflug said.

After Thomas shared those e-mails with Roe and Bee-croft's public defenders, Roe withdrew from her role as an expert witness for the defense. She had not yet been called to testify, but had been sitting in the courtroom as an expert consultant, helping Beecroft's attorneys dissect medical testimony from the prosecution's experts.

"Whether the intent was to be coercive or not, that was ultimately the effect that it had," Stellpflug said.

'No merit,' Backstrom says

In a written statement released Thursday, Backstrom acknowledged writing the e-mails but denied trying to influence the case or witnesses. He said he has filed a detailed response.

"There is no merit to any of the allegations contained in this complaint," Backstrom said in the statement. He called the concerns expressed in the e-mails a "legitimate public policy concern I have had for some time regarding certain practices of [the medical examiner's] office."

Monica Jenson, spokeswoman for the Dakota County Attorney's Office, Stellpflug and Thomas declined to release copies of the e-mails. Staff at Washington County Court Administration said Beecroft's case file could not be accessed because it was in Judge Mary Hannon's office.

State Public Defender John Stuart and 10th Judicial District Public Defender Bill Ward, the lawyers who Stellpflug said filed the complaint, declined to comment.

The state board can levy private or public punishment for attorneys who have violated standards of conduct. Private punishment can be as lenient as a written reprimand that is kept confidential, but public punishment can be as severe as disbarment.

Thomas, who along with Roe is a private employee of Regina Medical Center in Hastings, confirmed that she received the e-mails and concurred with Stellpflug's description of their contents.

She said it is relatively common for forensic investigators who do contract work for counties as medical examiners to also review medical evidence for defense attorneys.

"There aren't that many of us, so you feel that obligation to provide service to the legal system," Thomas said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056