Nicole Beecroft case goes back to court

The Minnesota Appellate Court case of Nicole Beecroft, an Oakdale teenager sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of her newborn baby in April 2007, has been sent back to trial court for an evidentiary hearing.

Highest penalty
Beecroft, now 20, was convicted of first-degree murder on Dec. 1, 2008, and is serving her life sentence at the women's correctional facility in Shakopee. She received the most severe penalty ever issued by a Minnesota court to a teenage girl found guilty of killing her newborn.

According to court records, during the early morning hours of April 9, 2007, Beecroft was alone in a laundry room at her mother's home when she gave birth. She stabbed the infant girl more than 100 times and left the body in the trash bin outside the home.

Despite the fact that she was 17 at the time, Beecroft was certified as an adult in court because of the severity of the charge she faced.

Beecroft's court proceedings started in April of 2007 and the trial took place throughout the month of November 2008. The teen waved her right to a jury trial, and Washington County Judge Mary E. Hannon heard the case and decided the verdict.

Beecroft's case was turned over to the state appeals court in March 2009.

Sara Martin, an appeals specialist from the State Public Defender's Office who is now representing Beecroft, did not return several calls for comment about the status of the appeal.

The evidentiary hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 19, 2010, in Hannon's courtroom, the same place where the verdict was issued last year.

The Ramsey County medical examiner conducted the initial autopsy and concluded that the Tartan High School student's baby lived long enough for air to enter her lungs and died as a result of multiple stab wounds.

Defense attorneys, however, argued the infant was stillborn, and the distraught teenager inflicted the injuries on a lifeless body.

They said their case was supported by four pediatric forensic doctors who studied the evidence and concluded that the infant was never alive.

But Beecroft's lawyers said their defense was unduly hindered when "meddling" county attorneys kept two of those forensic experts from testifying.

As a result, defense attorneys said Beecroft did not get a fair trial and a new one should be ordered.

Behind-the-scenes muzzling?
"It's my understanding that they (Beecroft and her appeal attorney) want to show evidence that they were not able to call in an assistant medical examiner from St. Louis County, because her office said she could not do outside (consulting) work," said Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson, whose office prosecuted the case.

Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist and court-certified medical expert, is the assistant medical examiner in St. Louis County.

Ophoven was one of four medical experts contacted for the case by Beecroft's original court-appointed defense attorneys, Luke Stellpflug and Christine Funk.

Dr. Janis Amatuzio, the Anoka County chief medical examiner and forensic pathologist, Dr. Charles Wetli, a former medical examiner from New York, and Dr. Susan Roe, a medical examiner from Regina Medical Center in Hastings, were also asked to consult and possibly testify for the defense.

"When the Beecroft case was getting ready for trial, I was contacted by Susan Roe and Christine Funk regarding consulting with them on the case because this is an area I have an interest in and special expertise in," Ophoven said. "Because of my training and background, I am thought by some to be especially suited for this type of case."

"Ultimatum"
Ophoven has her own practice in Woodbury where she focuses on cases involving child abuse and injuries to children, according to her Web site. In addition, Ophoven has testified or worked as a consultant in both defense and prosecution cases where a child was injured or killed.

She said she agreed with the ruling of the other defense medical experts on the Beecroft case.

"There was no evidence (the) child was born alive based on all facts in the case," Ophoven told the Review during an interview.

However, due to an order from her boss in St. Louis County, Ophoven said she could only consult with Beecroft's attorneys and other medical experts when she was asked to help with the case.

Ophoven started working for the St. Louis County medical examiner's office part time in 2003, she said.

A couple of years after she started working with the county, Ophoven said she received a letter from her boss, Dr. Thomas Uncini, stating she could not testify for any defense case in the state of Minnesota.

Uncini declined to comment when asked about the letter.

Ophoven contended the letter came from Uncini as a "direct ultimatum" from the sheriff and county attorney in St. Louis County.

She said she told Uncini that she was "disappointed" with his decision. "It is not fair for defendants in Minnesota to not have access to people who are experts," Ophoven said.

But she also faced her own decision about whether to keep working with the St. Louis County medical examiner's office or testify for the defense in the Beecroft case.

"It's a treat to work on cases with (the St. Louis County legal and law enforcement staffs) and I didn't want to stop doing it, so I bowed to the pressure," Ophoven said.

During Beecroft's court case, Ophoven said she provided her "two cents" to the defense team about the medical evidence and sat in the courtroom for some of the hearings.

And then there were three ... then two
Despite Ophoven's inability to testify, the Beecroft defense attorneys still felt confident because of the other three medical experts they had lined up to testify during the trial.

One of them was Dakota County assistant medical examiner Dr. Susan Roe, a highly regarded pediatric forensic pathologist specializing in cases involving infant deaths.

Like Ophoven, she reviewed the evidence and reports and was convinced Beecroft's baby was stillborn.

However, as Beecroft's trial progressed, she, too, began to feel pressure from her employer not to testify on Beecroft's behalf.

During Beecroft's trial, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom sent e-mails to Roe and her boss, Dr. Lindsey Thomas, requesting that staff from their office not act as witnesses or experts for the defense.

Backstrom stated that he felt it was a conflict of interest for staff in his county's medical examiner's office to testify for the defense in a case involving his colleagues in nearby Washington County.

As a result of Backstrom's strongly worded e-mails and fears that her job as well as Thomas' were threatened, Dr. Roe abruptly left the Beecroft case in the middle of the trial.

Feeling blindsided by the unexpected departure of their key medical expert, Beecroft's attorneys filed a complaint through the Office of Lawyer's Responsibility about Backstrom's actions and the matter went to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The high court ruled that Backstrom violated the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which refers to conduct that appears to interfere with a pending court case, or "the proper administration of justice."

"We have real concerns when someone who is involved in the justice system tells a potential witness, being an expert witness or a fact witness, that you really (should) not be cooperating with the defense in a particular matter ... even if that witness happens to be a government employee such as a medical examiner," said Patrick Burns, assistant director with the Office of Lawyer's Professional Responsibility.

However, Johnson said the evidentiary hearing next year is not related to the e-mails sent by Backstrom and Roe's decision to leave the case, just the matter regarding Dr. Ophoven. "It has nothing to do with James Backstrom," he said.

'County attorney shenanigans'
Two months ago, Dr. Ophoven's restriction to testify for defense cases in Minnesota was lifted, and now she said she has been asked to give testimony in the upcoming February hearing for Beecroft's appeal case.

"I don't know why he (Thomas Uncini) reversed his position but he did. (He) said you can do defense work as long as it is not in conflict of interest in St. Louis County," Ophoven said.

When asked for a copy of both letters, Uncini's office staff referred the request to Ophoven.

She could not be reached again to obtain the letter prior to press time.

The second letter from Uncini came to Ophoven about the time that Backstrom was issued a reprimand from the state at the end of June.

"He (Uncini) found out that he was in the minority and realized that he was on an unsupportable limb that was going to be sawed off when Mr. Backstrom got his sanction," Ophoven said.

The February hearing, she said, is in regard to people who were moved off the Beecroft case, and the resulting damage it did to the teenager's defense team.

"This is to bring the behind-the-scenes shenanigans forward that kept this woman from getting a fair trial," Ophoven said.

"If you take all the shenanigans away, the evidence shows, in my opinion, that this (judge) should have had concerns about whether this child was born alive. If this child was not born alive, then it should not have been first-degree murder," she said.
 

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