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Backstrom to be reprimanded for e-mail

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom will be publicly reprimanded and fined $900 for sending an e-mail to the county coroner in which he "threatened" her continued employment.

Last week, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility ruled in the case, which stems from a November e-mail Backstrom sent to Dakota County Medical Examiner Lindsey Thomas.

Backstrom wrote in the e-mail to Thomas that he was not in favor of the county's medical examiners testifying for defense witnesses.

"If you continue to do so, I am giving you the courtesy of letting you know that neither the Sheriff or I will be in a position to continue to support your appointment as the Dakota County Coroner," Backstrom wrote in a Nov. 5, 2008, e-mail.

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility ruled that Backstrom's actions violated the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct.

In a statement issued last week, Backstrom apologized for the e-mail and says he regrets having sent it.

"... Sending this email at the time I did represented a lack of judgment on my part for which I apologize," he wrote. "... I regret having sent this email and have accepted the recommendation of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility that I receive a public reprimand."

The Minnesota Supreme Court will make a ruling based on the recommendation. It is not known when that will take place.

The case

A Stillwater attorney was defending a murder suspect in Washington County during a trial in November 2008. Dakota County Assistant Medical Examiner Susan Roe agreed to testify for the defense.

Backstrom and Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson do not agree with the practice of county medical examiners testifying as defense witnesses. Gudmundson said he sees it as a conflict of interest.

When Backstrom learned Roe was to testify in the case, he sent the e-mail to Thomas, who is Roe's boss.

In the e-mail, Backstrom wrote:

"I do not accept your position that there is nothing wrong with this practice, nor does ... Gudmundson. ... If you wish to be a defense expert, you should not be a public official representing Dakota County as our Coroner."

Thomas shared the e-mail with Roe. It was then Roe decided to withdraw as a witness as she and Thomas both feared they could lose their jobs if she were to testify.

Going forward

In their ruling, the lawyer's board included a statute that reads "the coroner or medical examiner is an independent official of the county." That line pleased Thomas.

"We appreciate that the lawyer's board ... emphasizes that the medical examiner's office is an independent office of the county," she said. "They emphasized the independent aspect."

Thomas said no policies in her office have changed because of the ruling.

"Certainly, my interpretation is that we weren't doing anything wrong," she said. "We'll just keep doing what we think is the right thing to do."

Thomas said she's happy the issue has been resolved.

"We're very grateful for the lawyer's board for all the work they put into it," she said. "They obviously took this very seriously. I think we're just relieved to have it behind us. We're sort of glad it's over."