The Minnesota Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of a 17-year-old for the murder of her newborn child, in a sharply worded opinion that found prosecutors improperly tried to intimidate medical examiners who wanted to assist the defense.
Nicole Beecroft has been serving a life sentence for the 2007 murder of her infant daughter. She admitted to stabbing the baby shortly after giving birth by herself in the laundry room of her mother's Oakdale home.
However, medical examiners disagreed on whether the baby was already dead at the time of the stabbing. Beecroft's attorneys struggled to convince the dissenting medical examiners to participate in the defense, in part because the medical examiners feared they would be fired, the Supreme Court found.
The Court's opinion, written by Justice Paul Anderson, cited emails sent by Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom to Dakota County Medical Examiner Lindsey Thomas in which Backstrom argued that it would be a conflict of interest for Dakota County medical examiners to work with defense attorneys. "If you wish to be a defense expert, you should not be a public official representing Dakota County as our coroner," Backstrom wrote in a Nov. 5, 2008 email.
State law says medical examiners are independent and can testify for either the prosecution or the defense. Most of the state's roughly two dozen forensic pathologists work for local counties. If medical examiners could not testify for the defense, the Supreme Court opinion noted, defendants would have to request expensive help from medical examiners in other states.
"These mistaken efforts by state actors unquestionably interfered with the independence of medical examiners, contravened clear legislative intent, and risked undermining Beecroft's constitutional rights; therefore, we conclude that we must exercise our supervisory powers and reverse Beecroft's conviction in the interests of justice," the opinion said.
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The Court sent the case back to Washington County for a new trial. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he remains confident in the merits of the Beecroft case.
"What struck me is that the Court didn't quibble with the facts that were proved," Orput said.
He noted that the Court did not find that the medical examiners' testimony would have made a different in Beecroft's conviction.
"I think the Supreme Court views this as an opportunity to make the policy statement that since forensic scientists and medical examiners and other experts offering scientific evidence are so crucial to the outcomes in criminal cases, that they really want to make sure that we all understand that they're independent," Orput said.
The Court's opinion noted that the case does not appear to be an isolated misunderstanding of the law.
"It appears instead that there is a widespread point of view among law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and perhaps other state actors that it is a 'conflict of interest' for medical examiners to work with criminal defendants," the opinion said.
The opinion also cited the Nicollet County Attorney's Office, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office, and an assistant attorney at the Washington County Attorney's Office for engaging "in conduct that either explicitly or implicitly undermined Beecroft's access to the assistance of certain medical examiners."
Thomas, the Dakota County medical examiner, said the Court's ruling will send a clear message to those who might seek to prevent medical examiners from testifying for the defense. She said the opinion went further than she expected in its defense of the independence of medical examiners.
"This is the best possible thing they could have said," Thomas said.
Thomas has been an outspoken critic of the work of Ramsey County Chief Medical Examiner Michael McGee, who testified for the prosecution in the Beecroft case. Thomas was one of several medical examiners who successfully challenged McGee's testimony in a separate murder case in Douglas County last year. That case ended when a Douglas County prosecutor called the case "forensically compromised" and dropped all charges against the defendant, Michael Hansen, who had been convicted of murdering his infant daughter.
The Innocence Project of Minnesota, which represented Hansen in his efforts to overturn the murder conviction, also filed a brief to the Supreme Court supporting Beecroft's case.
"We're thrilled that the court decided this way," said Innocence Project attorney Julie Jonas.
"This sends a very strong message, and a reason behind the message, that we could be wrongfully convicting innocent people if we do not level the playing field and allow the defense equal access," she said.
Backstrom, the Dakota County attorney, was reprimanded by the Minnesota Supreme Court in June 2009 for his interference in the Beecroft case, and agreed with a state law board finding that he committed "professional misconduct" by threatening to withdraw support for Dr. Thomas unless she barred her employees from working for defense attorneys.
In a written statement released Wednesday, Backstrom said, "I never intended to have any adverse impact upon Nicole Beecroft's first trial and I deeply regret having done so. I continue to accept responsibility for my lack of judgment at the time."
The statement continued, "As the decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down in this matter reflects, there was on-going debate at the time of this trial related to the appropriate role of medical examiners in cases outside of their jurisdictions. This decision has settled that debate."
The opinion also faulted St. Louis County Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini, who told one of his contracted medical examiners, Dr. Janice Ophoven, that she could not testify for the defense in Minnesota if she wanted to continue working for St. Louis County. Ophoven believed the Beecroft baby was dead before she was stabbed, but the defense decided not to call her as a witness after learning that she could be fired for testifying, the opinion said.
The Court found that another medical examiner, Dr. Susan Roe, of Dakota County, withdrew from the case after she reviewed the emails between Backstrom and Dr. Thomas. Roe's review of the case found that there was not enough evidence to be able to determine whether the baby was born alive or dead. She withdrew from the case because she "feared for her own professional and well-being" as a result of the emails, the opinion said. Roe now works as a medical examiner in Texas.
The Court also criticized Beecroft's attorneys for not calling the two dissenting medical examiners to testify, despite the intimidation.
The defense "should not have allowed their desire to avoid controversy or their concern for the doctors' plight to temper their duty to zealously represent Beecroft," the opinion said.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, Justice Christopher Dietzen, and Justice David Stras dissented from the opinion.