Judge denies Beecroft post-conviction hearing

A new trial request from Nicole Beecroft, the now 21-year-old convicted of first-degree murder for the death of her newborn baby in 2007, was denied July 20.

Washington County District Judge Mary E. Hannon, who presided over Beecroft's murder trial, handed down the order denying the motion for a new trial. Beecroft requested her conviction be reversed and a new trial ordered, arguing she did not have a complete defense during the court proceedings in November 2008.

"I'm not surprised at the ruling; it's what we expected. I'm pleased," said Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson on Wednesday.

"I think we know what the law is; we know what the facts were; the judge applied the facts to the law and came up with this conclusion. The only way they were going to get a different result is if the judge didn't follow the law," Johnson said.

Beecroft waved her right to a jury trial and the case was heard before Hannon, who issued a guilty verdict on Dec. 1, 2008. Beecroft is serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole at the Minnesota women's prison in Shakopee.

She was convicted of first-degree murder for stabbing her newborn baby girl more than 100 times after giving birth in the laundry room of her mother's Oakdale home during the early hours of April 9, 2007. Beecroft, a 17-year-old Tartan High School senior at the time, then left the body in the trash bin outside the home.

Kelly Mills, the principal assistant medical examiner for Washington County who performed the autopsy, concluded the baby was born alive and died from multiple stab wounds.

Defense attorneys, however, argued the infant was stillborn.

Although air in the infant's lungs and stomach, defense lawyers presented several different theories to refute that meant she was alive. They said the infant was born alive but died before she was stabbed; she inhaled air in the birth canal but was stillborn; or the air entered her stomach and lungs when the infant was stabbed, according to Hannon's order.

Hannon ruled that based on evidence and testimony from witnesses, multiple stab wounds led to the baby's death.

Sara Martin, an appeals specialist with the State Public Defender's Office, is Beecroft's current attorney.

She filed the appeal for a new trial on Beecroft's behalf last March. It was stayed until a decision was issued on the post-conviction hearing and will now be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

New trial process
Beecroft appeared in Washington County court in February at an evidentiary hearing for Judge Hannon to consider a new trial in the case.

Dr. Janice Ophoven, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy report and records in the Beecroft case during her 2008 trial, testified before Hannon in February.

One of Beecroft's two trial attorneys, Christine Funk, also testified for the defense during the hearing.

Assistant Washington County Attorney Heather Pipenhagen interviewed Ophoven and her witnesses included Dr. Thomas Uncini, a St. Louis County medical examiner, and St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford.

Ophoven has been an assistant medical examiner in St. Louis County since 2003 and Uncini is her boss. She also has her own forensic pathology practice in Woodbury.

She did not testify at the Beecroft murder trial because Uncini prohibited her from doing so on any defense case in Minnesota while she worked for his office.

Ophoven's restriction was lifted in 2009 after Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom was reprimanded by the Minnesota Supreme Court for interfering with "the proper administration of justice" due to strongly worded emails he sent to medical examiners working for the defense on the Beecroft case.

The reprimand was a result of emails Backstrom sent to Dr. Susan Roe, a medical examiner who initially worked on the Beecroft case, and her boss Dr. Lindsey Thomas in Dakota County. They felt Backstrom threatened their jobs in the emails, and Roe withdrew from the Beecroft case in the middle of the trial.

After the decision against Backstrom, Ophoven still could not testify on behalf of defendants in St. Louis County but is free to do so elsewhere in Minnesota. She said during Beecroft's February hearing that she would testify if a new trial is ordered in the case.

'A complete defense'
However, Ophoven's inability to testify in the 2008 trial was not enough to overturn the guilty verdict or prove that there was "governmental intimidation by a state actor in this case," according to Judge Hannon ruling this week.

"Dr. Ophoven was unwilling to testify for Defendant Beecroft due to an employment condition of her part-time position with Dr. Uncini's practice, Lakeland Pathology. Defendant Beecroft's attorneys presented a complete defense and Dr. Ophoven's testimony would not have affected the verdict," it reads.

Also, Hannon ruled that Beecroft's trial attorneys were "diligent and reasonable," and her right to effective counsel was not violated.

"The trial court's verdict and conviction of Defendant Beecroft on the offense of murder in the first degree, filed Dec. 1, 2008, stand as ordered," Hannon's decision reads.

Now that Hannon issued her decision on the post-conviction hearing, Beecroft will forward her appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

"It's totally out of our hands right now," Johnson said. "It's going to be up to the Supreme Court to decide what happens to her ... we expect the verdict is going to be upheld," he said.

Beecroft's attorney, Sara Martin, was not available for comment prior to press time.

Katy Zillmer can be reached at kzillmer@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.

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