The Minnesota Supreme Court has admonished him and fined him $900.
Backstrom knows very little about medicine or pharmaceuticals yet he has persecuted hundreds of people through prosecutions over marijuana.
Minnesota Supreme Court reprimands Dakota County Attorney
The American Intelligence Wire
June 25, 2009
Byline: Frederick Melo
The Minnesota Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom for discouraging a medical examiner from letting a co-worker to testify in a Washington County murder trial.
Backstrom will pay a $900 fine.
In a one-page decision, filed today, the state's highest court followed the disciplinary recommendation issued last month by the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
The Minnesota Board of Public Defense filed the original complaint. The state public defenders argued that Backstrom overstepped his bounds by sending an e-mail to Dakota County Medical Examiner Lindsey Thomas telling her she could lose her job if she or one of the other doctors in her office testified for defense attorneys in neighboring counties.
Following the e-mail, a doctor in Thomas' office declined to testify as an expert witness for the defense in the Washington County murder trial of Nicole Beecroft, 19, who was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing her newborn daughter.
Backstrom accepted the recommendation of the Lawyers Board last month and agreed to the fine. He issued a public apology for sending the email, acknowledging that it gave the appearance he was interfering in an ongoing court trial.
"I did not intend to adversely impact the Washington County trial in any respect," Backstrom wrote. "However, sending this email at the time I did represented a lack of judgment on my part for which apologize."
A spokeswoman from Backstrom's office reissued that apology today and said Backstrom would decline further comment.
The Supreme Court decision cites Rule 8.4D, which says an attorney may not "engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice."
It stops short of addressing a larger issue, said Patrick Burns, first assistant director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility: Is it ever appropriate for county attorneys to tell medical examiners who they may or may not testify for?
Several medical examiners in the metro have argued that their work is independent of their county prosecutor's office, and that it's their right to serve as expert witnesses for either side in court trials outside of their own county. Given the limited number of examiners in the U.S., it's important, they say, to share their knowledge in the pursuit of justice, regardless of what side they work with.
Backstrom, Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson and other prosecutors have objected to the practice, arguing that medical examiners are appointed by the county leadership and should serve their interests.
"County attorneys will want to take a narrow reading of this court's ruling," Burns said. "Public defenders will want to take a broader reading of this court's ruling."
He added: "Our office is fully prepared to litigate the question of whether, under any circumstances, it would be appropriate for the county attorney to tell the medical examiner who they may or may not cooperate with in a criminal case.
Dakota County attorney Backstrom reprimanded
May 16, 2009
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A state lawyer's board has reprimanded Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom for acting unprofessionally by interfering in a murder trial in another county.
Last year, Washington County convicted 19-year-old Nicole Beecroft of first-degree murder and sentenced her to life in prison for killing her newborn daughter. During the trial, Beecroft's attorneys contracted Susan Roe, an assistant Dakota County medical examiner, as an expert witness.
In response, Backstrom e-mailed Dakota County Medical Examiner Lindsey Thomas questioning whether her staff should be allowed to work for defense attorneys. ''I view this practice as a conflict of interest and inappropriate,'' Backstrom wrote to Thomas.
As a result of the e-mail, Roe withdrew from working on the Beecroft case even though such an arrangement is legal under Minnesota law. Beecroft's attorneys say her withdrawal hurt their case.
Backstrom agreed to the reprimand from the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, though he said it he didn't intend to interfere in the case.
''While I do not believe my action ultimately affected the outcome of the Washington County trial ... I regret having sent this email,'' Backstrom said.
James C. Backstrom: A high-energy prosecutor on a mission
Minnesota Lawyer - January 27, 2003
Byline: Ember Reichgott Junge
Dakota County Attorney James C. Backstrom is a high-energy, high-profile prosecutor, who makes it his mission to find better ways of doing things.
It wasn't always that way. The son of a fireman and grocery store sales clerk, Backstrom says he was very introverted as a child growing up in Duluth.
"I was shy to the extreme," acknowledges Backstrom. "I was bullied when I was in elementary school. I walked home from school and I was pushed down and my bike was stolen. I was afraid to walk home from school and I didn't know who to turn to."
That experience of his youth sensitized Backstrom to the problem of bullying in schools, motivating him to develop an anti-bullying initiative that has attracted national attention.
"Bullies single out kids who are a little different, who are shy, overweight, or a different racial group," explains Backstrom. "Bullying creates low self-esteem and an overwhelming fear in kids. While 160,000 kids across America fear going to school, sadly, almost half the parents don't think bullying is a big issue. We need to understand the long-term impacts of bullying on a young person's life."
Backstrom has worked with Dakota County judges to require overnight juvenile detention for juvenile bullies acting out with physical aggression. Backstrom also provides a Power Point presentation on anti-bullying and harassment for parents upon request.
The anti-bullying initiative is just one innovative prevention initiative targeted to children and youth developed by Backstrom's office since he was appointed county attorney in 1987. Since then, eight of his office's initiatives have been honored with the National Association of Counties Achievement (NACA) Award.
This year, the NACA recognized Dakota County's "Prioritizing Prosecutions in Schools Program" (PPS) Co the program from which the anti-bullying initiative arose.
Prevention efforts set him apart.
Backstrom believes it is important to take a firm stand on juvenile crime.
"We wanted to focus more on addressing criminal behavior in school buildings, on school grounds, on buses, and in connection with school activities," says Backstrom. "We are prioritizing our response to this issue. Now we treat all crimes in schools as if they were crimes of violence, forcing us to respond within 36 hours, and getting the kid into a diversion program within two to three weeks, not two to three months. We believe this will be a deterrent to future criminal behavior by others, because they see a response. That's important."
Other innovative prevention efforts in Backstrom's office have focused on anti-drug, alcohol and tobacco initiatives targeted to youth and their parents. A juvenile alcohol and marijuana diversion program for first-time offenders was established as early as 1993, followed by juvenile property and tobacco diversion programs.
"Juveniles are held accountable because they must pay for costs of attending education and counseling sessions," explains Backstrom. "It's like paying a court fine, but they get positive lessons too. We hope to get to the bottom of why they are acting out and stop that behavior before it escalates."
More recently, Backstrom is reaching out to parents through "Not My Kid" efforts. Partnering with schools and community groups, he wants to give parents a wake-up call.
"When it comes to alcohol and drugs, parents think it's someone else's kid," said Backstrom. "We show them that nearly 50 percent of ninth- graders in Dakota County have used alcohol. We challenge [parents] to stay involved in their children's lives."
Backstrom says he is proud of his Anti-Drug/Violence Poster calendar contest now in its 14th year. Coordinated with D.A.R.E. classes, 374 posters were submitted this year by Dakota County elementary school students, each making positive statements about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco or violence. Twelve posters were selected for the calendar, with county distribution of 15,000.
Backstrom's prevention efforts "really set him apart," says Dakota County Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler. "He is always looking for better ways of doing things, ways to improve things, which often creates more work. He does a dual role in getting the work done that needs to be done, but also pursuing these preventive programs. He takes on a lot more work that way and is very ambitious and aggressive in his pursuit of these avenues."
Backstrom oversees 37 assistant county attorneys and a staff of 90. Dakota County has the third-largest county attorney's office in the state. The staff, like the county, has grown dramatically since the days Backstrom started in the office as a law clerk in 1977, when there were only seven attorneys.
But the achievements and setbacks most significant to Backstrom focus on his work in the trial and appellate courtroom. He is proud of arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving police search and seizure. In a 5-4 decision, the high court reversed the decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn the defendants' convictions.
In a three-week trial last April, Backstrom successfully prosecuted a 27-year-old man for the gruesome child abuse and murder of Dillon Blocker, the 3-year-old son of the man's girlfriend. The mother was also sentenced to twice the recommended sentence under state guidelines for failing to protect her son from her boyfriend's fatal abuse.
"This was the worst case we had ever seen," says Backstrom. "It took a real emotional toll on everyone, including Judge [Leslie] Metzen. They were the worst images of abuse you could imagine. They haunted my dreams for many months. I got tears in my eyes when I thought of the terrible injuries that boy suffered before he died."
Ultimately, the defendant was convicted of several counts of first- and second-degree murder, including first-degree murder while committing a past pattern of child abuse. One factor leading to conviction was testimony by a forensic dentist who matched the defendant's teeth to many of the bite marks over the child's body.
Anthony Torres, a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney, describes Backstrom as a "very good trial attorney" and a "real decent person."
"We have maintained a professional and somewhat personal friendship," Torres says. "We have the ultimate respect for one another."
In a recent case, Torres represented 16-year-old Scott Tomlinson who strangled his 13-year-old sister. Torres and Backstrom were able to work out a resolution agreeable to all parties.
"I have never had a negative experience with Jim Backstrom," Torres observes. "The case we had was politically volatile, yet we were able to resolve a difficult case in reasonable fashion. Jim Backstrom is extremely passionate about his work, extremely focused, and goal-oriented, but he's also realistic about the needs not only of the victim, but of the defendant, the families involved, and the public safety involved."
Backstrom's passion for his job extends well beyond Dakota County. He has long been active in the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and is past president. He has taken leadership roles on committees of the National District Attorneys Association, and he writes frequently of the need to invest resources in prevention.
"The simple solution to juvenile crime is to invest in young children," he says.
Backstrom is no stranger to the Minnesota Legislature, bringing numerous initiatives to the Capitol each year, particularly on domestic violence, child abuse and drunk-driving issues. He was actively involved in legislation regarding "shaken babies" cases, and was the first to initiate a "safe place for newborns," which the Legislature quickly made statewide policy.
"Jim has done a great service by helping us correct unintended results of past legislation, or suggesting needed changes arising out of actual cases," says Sen. David Knutson, R-Burnsville, a lawyer who carries much of Backstrom's legislation. "Sometimes (Committee Chair) Sen. Spear would laugh when I'd come in with the many parts of the CyBackstrom agenda,' but often they were well-thought out, and most of them passed."
Backstrom makes it very clear that he considers himself a prosecutor, not a politician. "This is a career I've chosen and love to do. I'm very satisfied and thankful to the citizens for this opportunity."
But others marvel at Backstrom's political skills in maintaining high visibility in the media, and constant personal presence in the community, including walking all the summer parades in the county. One supporter laughingly points out that Backstrom's name or face is featured in 15 different places on his anti-drug/violence poster calendar distributed throughout the county.
When people talk about Backstrom there is one general point of agreement Co he is one fine singer. He is known to sing "God Bless America" upon occasion at county board meetings or community events. And he has a reputation as one of the best Elvis Presley impersonators around.
"Jim is a true gentleman, very reserved professionally. But socially, he's a lot of fun in his Elvis garb," said Schouweiler. "He drove a colleague and me to an Elvis-singing contest benefit in Northfield. He won hands-down."
Born: Feb. 12, 1953; Duluth
Education: William Mitchell College of Law, J.D., cum laude, 1978; F.B.I. National Law Institute; University of Minnesota, Duluth, B.A., Economics and Political Science, magna cum laude, 1974
Employment: Dakota County Attorney, 1987 - present; assistant Dakota County Attorney, 1978-87; Civil Division Head, 1982-87
Professional Associations: Minnesota County Attorneys Association Board Member, 1988 - present, past president (1994), past chair of Criminal Law Committee, past co-chair of Juvenile Law Committee; National District Attorneys Association Board Member, 1992 - present, vice president, 1997-2000, co-chair Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, 1994-2001, Executive Committee, 2001-02; Dakota County Police Chiefs Association; 1st Judicial District Bar Association president, 1990; Dakota County Bar Association; advisory committee member, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids
Community Involvement: Various chemical dependency and violence prevention organizations; South Metro Crime Prevention Association Inver Grove Heights School Community Advisory Team; Inver Grove Heights Community Initiative; Dakota County Fair Board, 1988-1999; Dakota County Agricultural Society; Dakota County Technical College Foundation Board of Directors, 1994-1996
Personal: Wife, Mary Beth Backstrom; two children, two grandchildren
Hobbies: Church choir; Elvis impersonator, biking, basketball
Commentary on NPR
by James C. Backstrom, Minnesota Dakota County Attorney
Marijuana, America's most dangerous illegal drug
by James C. Backstrom
June 21, 2010
Hastings, Minn. — Methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin may be America's most addictive and destructive drugs, but marijuana is the most dangerous illegal drug in our nation. The reasons for this conclusion are many. First is that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America. Almost 2 million persons began using marijuana last year in the United States, and marijuana use starts at a younger age than most other illicit drugs.
Early marijuana use is associated with drug dependence as an adult. The younger the age of first use, the higher the likelihood of such dependence as an adult. More than 4 million Americans are estimated to be dependent upon or abusers of marijuana, more than any other illegal drug. Treatment admissions for marijuana abuse have been higher than for any other illegal drug in our nation since 2002.
Marijuana is not the harmless substance many would like us to believe. Marijuana is an addictive drug that poses significant health risks to its users. Short-term effects of marijuana include memory loss, distorted perception, trouble with thinking and problem solving, and loss of motor skills. Long-term adverse impacts include loss in muscle strength, increased heart rate, respiratory problems, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, impaired ability to fight off infections and risk of cancer (marijuana contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke).
Marijuana is far more powerful today than it was 30 years ago. THC levels have increased from the 1 percent potency level in the 1970s to more than 13 percent today (on average), with some samples containing THC levels of up to 33 percent.
Even more troubling is that marijuana serves as a gateway to the use of other illegal drugs. Most people who use methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine started their illegal drug use with marijuana. A recent study on addiction and substance abuse showed that teens who use marijuana at least once a month are 13 times more likely than other teens to use other drugs like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, and are almost 26 times more likely than those teens who never used marijuana to use another illegal drug. Another study showed that 12- to 17-year-olds who smoked marijuana were 85 times more likely to use cocaine than those who did not. Sixty percent of adolescents who use marijuana before age 15 will later use cocaine.
Last, but certainly not least, there are strong links between marijuana use, violence and other criminal activity. Young people who use marijuana weekly are nearly four times more likely than nonusers to engage in violence. Nationwide, 40 percent of adult males arrested for crimes tested positive for marijuana at the time of their arrest. Marijuana is in fact the cash crop that drives the illegal drug trade, not just here in Minnesota but across our country. Marijuana use provides a significant part of the demand side of the equation that brings drug dealers onto our street corners and into our schools and neighborhoods -- drug dealers who bring with them other crimes and violence.
The connection between marijuana use and gang activity and violence is inescapable. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently commented about middle-class Minnesotans who are buying marijuana "with a wink and a nod, thinking it has nothing to do with anything" when in fact these persons are "literally paying for the bullets that kill people." I agree with Mayor Rybak that "any person who buys marijuana in this region is directly or indirectly giving money to gangs." Recreational users of marijuana may not think of themselves as criminals, but they are in fact the biggest contributors to the illegal drug trade in America.
We would be wise as a society not to underestimate the destructive nature of marijuana. It is a powerful and addictive substance that is a gateway drug to other controlled substance abuse. Marijuana use finances in large part the activities of gangs and drug dealers. It is by far the most frequently used illegal drug in America and its use is directly connected to crime and violence in our communities.
For all of these reasons, in my opinion marijuana is America's most dangerous drug. We need to recognize the threat it represents and continue our efforts to control it, prevent our youth from starting to use it, aggressively enforce our laws against those who illegally cultivate, distribute and possess it, and effectively treat those who have become addicted to it.