Dakota County attorney is man of many sidesby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
If there's a big story in the Twin Cities involving a criminal prosecution, more often than not it mentions the name Jim Backstrom. Backstrom is the long-time Dakota County attorney who testifies regularly at the state Capitol, and who's gained a repuation as a tough prosecutor. But Backstrom also has a side that belies his law-and-order persona.
Hastings, Minn. — The son of a firefighter father and a bookkeeper mother, Backstrom got his first job as a carryout boy at the Piggly Wiggly grocery story in Duluth. He describes himself as painfully shy then, and somewhat of a mama's boy. He was very close to his mother but that changed at age 19.
"My mother and father were out driving to a friend's lake home in Wisconsin, and they were hit head-on by a young boy who was only 15 years old -- who I was told later had a beer or two and took his father's Cadillac out for a joy-ride with one of his buddies," says Backstrom. "The mother I grew up loving and knowing, for all practical purposes died that day, because she was a totally different person."
At the time vehicles only came with lap belts, not shoulder belts. The crash propelled his mother's head into the dashboard. She suffered permanent brain damage that left her paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak, even though she could fully understand those around her.
"I didn't know I wanted to be a prosecutor then. 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 says.
Backstrom's career is unique in law. After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 1978, he walked in the door of the Dakota County attorney's office and has never left.
Backstrom worked as a law clerk there, then assistant county attorney and ultimately county attorney. He's run that office for 20 years. Backstrom has run unopposed for four out of the past five elections.
State Public Defender Brad Colbert got to know Backstrom in 1998, when the two ended up on opposite sides of a U.S. Supreme Court case. That case tested the limits of the Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches.
In that case, an Eagan police officer peered through a window in an apartment building. The window blinds were down, but the officer could see through a space that three people were bagging cocaine. Police arrested the three on drug charges.
The question was whether short-term guests had the same privacy rights in another person's house. Colbert argued they did; Backstrom argued they did not. The court sided with Backstrom 6-3.
Colbert says Backstrom was a good opponent. He says Backstrom's decades-long career at the office is good for Dakota County.
"One of the things he brings to the office is stability. He has been the county attorney for as long as I have been a practicing attorney, and I think that's an important part of a prosecutor's office," says Colbert.
Like other communities in the metro area, Dakota County has its share of drug cases, including meth. It has sex offenses and homicides. But the case for which Backstrom will likely be remembered is the Robert Guevara prosecution.
In 1993, Backstrom tried Guevara in the disappearance of 5-year-old Corrine Erstad. Erstad went missing and was never found. Police found her watermelon-print sundress, stained with blood, in Guevara's rented storage locker. Guevara's lawyer argued the locker wasn't secured and implied police framed his client. After a trial that lasted five and a half months, the jury acquitted Guevara.
Now, Erstad's photo shares a place on the same book shelf as the one of Backstrom's mother.
"It was a time in my life, probably the only time in my career as county attorney, when I came back and sat in my office alone that night after that verdict came in, and I wasn't sure whether I could keep doing what I was doing because it hurt in my soul. And it still hurts," Backstrom says.
MPR contacted Backstrom's opponent in the case, Robert Guevara's attorney Anthony Torres. Torres declined to be interviewed for this story.
Backstrom has his share of critics, some of whom didn't want to talk on the record because they may have to deal with him in court. He has a reputation for enjoying the limelight. Those same sources say too often, he and other prosecutors lose a case and then run to the state Capitol to try to change the law.
State Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, who's also an attorney, agrees with that assessment. He says the county attorneys have a strong lobbying presence at the Capitol and it's usually Backstrom.
"Sometimes I catch myself rolling my eyes whenever he gets up to testify, saying 'Here we go again,'" says Betzold. "There's only so many times that you can testify that something's a horrible idea that the Legislature's considering, or come in with a weak idea that's critically important, before it starts losing credibility," says Betzold.
While the public may see Backstrom as a law and order prosecutor, he has another side -- a side seeded in the humble beginnings of his high school choir.
At his 20th high school reunion, Backstrom tasted the kind of fame that only a karaoke stage can bring. He sang "Teddy Bear," a song made famous by Elvis Presley, and life was never the same.
First it was karaoke, then Halloween parties; it was just a matter of time before he started handing out scarves. Yes, the man who was painfully shy as a youth and who holds a place in public life as a conservative, tough-on-crime prosecutor dresses up as the King.
"It's a strange hobby to have; I'll grant you that," says Backstrom. "I enjoy singing. For my 50th birthday party a few years ago, my wife actually bought me an Elvis outfit. And now I go out and sing fairly frequently in the public, and I sing a lot for senior citizens at assisted living homes or senior centers. I've done a few outdoor concerts in the community around different places."
In one of those performances caught on tape, Backstrom loses himself in an Elvis transformation. Wearing dark sunglasses, his hair is jet black, slightly bouffant. Long sideburns reach around his jaws. He wears a black jumpsuit with attached cape from Presley's Las Vegas period.
As the suit's rhinestones and gold chains sparkle, he sings "A Devil in Disguise" to Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz.
Backstrom has one Elvis outfit right now, but says given the increasing requests, he may need to get more.
- All Things Considered, 09/19/2007, 4:50 p.m.