St. Louis County medical examiner’s actions cited by justices in overturning murder convictionThe Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out the conviction of an Oakdale woman accused of killing her newborn daughter, saying that because the St. Louis County chief medical examiner and other state officials had interfered with two defense witnesses, the guilty verdict should be reversed “in the interests of justice.”
By: Amy Forliti, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out the conviction of an Oakdale woman accused of killing her newborn daughter, saying that because the St. Louis County chief medical examiner and other state officials had interfered with two defense witnesses, the guilty verdict should be reversed “in the interests of justice.”
In doing so, the state’s highest court took a stand on a debate over the role of forensic experts in criminal cases. Justices said medical examiners are mandated to be independent and neutral, and must objectively testify for either side, despite what the court called a “widespread” view among law enforcement that testifying for a defendant would create a conflict of interest.
Nicole Marie Beecroft, 21, was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder for the 2007 death of her baby, who authorities said was stabbed 135 times and placed in the trash. Beecroft, who claimed the baby was stillborn, was sentenced in 2008 to life in prison without parole.
A key issue at trial was whether the baby was alive when stabbed. While both sides had forensic experts testify, some officials — including Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom and Dr. Thomas Uncini, the chief medical examiner for St. Louis County — discouraged experts from testifying on Beecroft’s behalf, the opinion said.
Their interference undermined “the integrity of the judicial system,” Justice Paul Anderson wrote in the majority opinion.
“We conclude that exceptional circumstances are present here and preventative action by us is necessary,” Anderson wrote. “We must exercise our supervisory powers and reverse Beecroft’s conviction in the interests of justice.”
Beecroft is in custody outside Minnesota, and will be returned to Washington County for a new trial.
John Stuart, the state public defender, called the decision a “huge step forward for Minnesota.”
“This is important for everybody who is concerned about having fair trials in Minnesota,” he said. “The court says both the defense and the prosecution should have access to scientific experts. Nobody owns science.”
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said the high court used the case to make a strong statement about the importance of independent experts, because their opinions are relied upon in criminal cases.
“We appreciate that they said that, and we take heed,” Orput said. “At the same time we plan on retrying the case.”
The high court’s 99-page opinion, which includes 20 pages of dissent, said Uncini restricted a member of his staff, Dr. Janice Ophoven, from performing criminal defense work while employed by the medical examiner’s office. Ophoven had reviewed Beecroft’s case, and believed the child was stillborn and disagreed with the assessment of the state’s experts.
But because of the restriction, Ophoven believed she’d be fired if she testified for the defense.
The defense also asked for the expert opinion of Dr. Susan Roe, an assistant medical examiner for eight counties, including Dakota County. Roe found the cause and manner of death to be “undetermined” and she was listed as a defense witness in the case.
But when Backstrom, the Dakota County Attorney, found out that Roe would be testifying as a defense witness in an unrelated case out of Nicollet County, he sent e-mails to Roe’s supervisor, Chief Dakota County Medical Examiner Dr. Lindsey Thomas, expressing concerns about medical examiners testifying as defense witnesses.
In the e-mails, Backstrom said he was “disturbed” that Roe would testify for a defendant and called it a “conflict of interest.” Backstrom threatened to withdraw his support from Thomas as the chief medical examiner unless she barred her subordinates from testifying as defense experts.
Fearing for her job, Roe cut ties with Beecroft’s defense.
Backstrom admitted to unprofessional conduct and was publicly reprimanded.
“I never intended to have any adverse impact on Beecroft’s first trial and I deeply regret having done so,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “I continue to accept responsibility for my lack of judgment at the time.”
He added that the Supreme Court decision settles an ongoing debate about the appropriate role of medical examiners in cases outside their jurisdictions.
Uncini was not in the office Wednesday and unavailable for comment.
Three justices disagreed with the opinion, including Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, who said she would affirm the verdict.
Gildea wrote that this is not a case where the court should use its supervisory powers to reverse a conviction. Gildea said Beecroft’s attorneys had many reasons for not calling Roe to testify, and that Uncini’s restriction on testimony didn’t apply to testimony given under subpoena.
She also wrote that the strength of the state’s case suggests that the same verdict would have been reached even if the two experts testified.
“Careful review of the record establishes, in my view, that Beecroft did, in fact, receive a fair trial,” Gildea said.
The majority opinion also noted that the state had a strong case: Beecroft, who was 17 at the time, hid the pregnancy from everyone but one friend, and although she said the baby was dead, she admitted that she saw her daughter move her finger and open her eyes.
Still, the judges made it clear that medical examiners must be allowed to use their expertise in court, without interference from the state.
“Medical examiners must at all times remain independent, autonomous and neutral participants in our criminal justice system,” Anderson wrote. “Good medical examiners do not choose sides. Instead, a medical examiner must testify fairly and objectively regardless of which party calls the examiner to testify.”
The ruling said medical examiners must be allowed to complete their death investigations without the interference, or the appearance of interference, by other state officials including law enforcement and prosecutors.
Sarah Berg, a spokeswoman with the Department of Corrections, said Beecroft was in custody outside Minnesota but that she couldn’t reveal where. While she couldn’t talk specifically about Beecroft, she said inmates are sometimes transferred out of the state to take advantage of programs that Minnesota doesn’t have, or if there are security concerns. Beecroft was moved out of Minnesota in 2010.