During a break in a 2008 murder trial, Dr. Susan Roe, a forensic pathologist for the defense, announced that she had quit the Washington County case.
The public defenders for a teen charged with stabbing her newborn 135 times had hired Roe to help them understand autopsy details, especially for cross-examinations of the state's witnesses.
But Roe told the stunned public defenders that she feared her livelihood as a medical examiner in Dakota County was being threatened, via e-mail, by that county's top prosecutor, James Backstrom, because she was helping the lawyers.
Friday, the e-mails that Backstrom had sent to Roe's boss last year culminated in a public reprimand of one of Minnesota's most well-known and outspoken prosecutors.
Backstrom is only the fourth sitting county attorney in Minnesota to face public discipline since the 1970's, according to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
Friday, in a joint decision, both the board and a contrite Backstrom recommended to the Minnesota Supreme Court that he be publicly reprimanded. Backstrom also agreed to pay $900 in court costs.
Backstrom said Friday that he never intended to end the involvement of Roe, an assistant medical examiner for Dakota County, as a defense witness in the Washington County trial.
He had taken exception to a representative of a public office potentially calling prosecution evidence into question during a criminal trial, and his sharp e-mail exchange with Roe's boss later led to defense accusations of coercion.
In a statement issued Friday, Backstrom apologized for what he called his "lack of judgment."
"The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility has determined that I did not comply with the rules of professional responsibility by sending this e-mail at a time when an assistant Dakota County medical examiner was under contract to assist defense attorneys in a murder trial occurring in Washington County," the statement said.
"My purpose in sending this e-mail was to share with the Dakota County Medical Examiner my concerns about this practice continuing in the future. I did not intend to adversely impact the Washington County trial in any respect. However, sending this e-mail at the time I did represented a lack of judgment on my part for which I apologize."
Backstrom also said he sent a clarifying e-mail to all parties involved after he became aware that his involvement had come under scrutiny.
Nicole Beecroft, 19, was convicted of first-degree murder in a non-jury trial and sentenced to life in prison.
Public defender Luke Stellpflug said he and co-counsel Christine Funk were angered when they learned last November that they had lost a crucial part of their defense. Roe had sat through the trial, helping them understand medical details and prepare cross-examinations, and she was prepared to testify as a rebuttal witness.
But then she showed them the e-mail that Backstrom had sent to her boss, which Roe said she believed threatened both of their careers.
"What Mr. Backstrom's e-mail did was prevent our consulting expert from consulting with us for half of our trial," Stellpflug said. "I'm still troubled and always will be by what impact, if any, it would have had on the outcome of Ms. Beecroft's trial."
Stellpflug said it's unclear whether Backstrom's conduct will become an issue in an appeal for Beecroft that's now being prepared by others.
Meanwhile, at the Minnesota Regional Coroner's Office in Hastings Friday, Dr. Lindsey Thomas said she and other medical examiners and forensic pathologists have spoken much about the importance of their ability to remain independent, since the episode with Backstrom.
"It was an unfortunate occurrence," Thomas said, "and we're just really relieved to have it behind us."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017