Crime, Law and Justice

Longtime Dakota County chief prosecutor James Backstrom to retire

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom announces a grand jury indictment in Hastings, Minn. Backstrom’s office confirmed Friday that he plans to retire on Feb. 27.
Glen Stubbe | The Star Tribune via AP 2012

Updated: Jan. 11, 4:27 p.m. | Posted:  Jan. 8, 2:17 p.m.

After more than three decades as Dakota County attorney, James Backstrom told staffers Friday morning that he plans to retire next month. 

Backstrom’s office confirmed that he plans to retire on Feb. 27. He has served as county attorney since 1987 and spent his entire career in the Dakota County Attorney’s Office. 

He told MPR News Friday that the COVID-19 pandemic also factored into his decision to retire.

“I’ve been struggling with some health issues in recent years, they’ve been getting worse, and they slowed me down a little,” Backstrom said. “Unfortunately, because of both my age and these chronic lung infections I’m getting, I’m at extremely high risk were I to get the COVID virus.” 

Backstrom's term goes until 2022. His successor will be chosen by the Dakota County Board of Commissioners. 

Backstrom’s father was a firefighter and his mother was a bookkeeper. He was raised in Duluth. His mother was seriously injured in a head-on car crash when he was a teenager. The 15-year-old boy who was driving the other car had been drinking. 

"I didn't know I wanted to be a prosecutor then,” he told MPR News in 2007. “But now when I look back at my life, I found my way into a career where I could do something to make a difference in those situations.

He’s known for his tough-on-crime approach, but has a hobby moonlighting as an Elvis impersonator.

Backstrom successfully tried a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998. But the case that most weighed on him, he said, was the disappearance of 5-year-old Corrine Erstad. His office prosecuted the case in 1993, but jurors acquitted the defendant. 

“You judge your career not by how many trials you won but by how many lives you’ve had a chance to positively impact in a meaningful way,” Backstrom said. “You judge your career by your efforts to pursue justice in a fair and impartial way with integrity. In that regard, I’m always going to hold my head up high.”

Backstrom is a graduate of William Mitchell College of Law. Before taking over as county attorney, he served as an assistant county attorney in Dakota County for almost a decade, half of which was spent as head of the office’s civil division. He's also a former president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. 

Backstrom’s office recently agreed to review the fatal Minneapolis police shooting of Dolal Idd to determine whether officers involved in the shooting should be charged.

Backstrom, who turns 68 next month, says he plans to relax with his family and take a trip to Florida after he retires. But he said he’s proud of the work he’s done in the court system and advocating for policies at the state Legislature that he thought could beef up criminal prosecutions.

“I believe I’ve made a difference, not only in Dakota County but in our state,” Backstrom said. ”I’m just extremely thankful to everyone who’s helped make that possible.” 

Correction (Jan. 11, 2021): An earlier version of this story provided the incorrect occupation of James Backstrom’s mother.

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