GRAND FORKS — After 13 years of litigation, the judicial system is still far from finished with Alfonso Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, the Crookston, Minn., man who was convicted in 2006 of kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, continues to appeal his death sentence. As costs mount, experts say the process could drag on for years -- maybe even another decade.
“It’s basically all on deck. We’re going to now throw in everything,” said U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who prosecuted the original case and appeal. “I think most people in a free society would say, ‘Good. We’ll all check one more time.’ But there are no limits placed on that in law. In time, it has expanded. In this case, it has expanded a bit like a gas. It has filled the fullness of time.”
Rodriguez’s counsel rested in February after a nine-day hearing, during which they claimed he is intellectually disabled. The ruling, however, won't come for a while. Wrigley said it could take months for a transcript to be completed and then attorneys will have four months to submit briefs on the issue.
Robert Durham, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, said the case could stretch another decade without reaching a conclusion.
Wrigley said he’s not surprised Rodriguez is still alive or that the case is still under scrutiny. Ultimately, he believes Rodriguez’s final appeals will prove unsuccessful and he will be put to death.
“I recognize, having personally handled the appeal to the Eighth Circuit and ultimately up to the Supreme Court in that first go-around, that it is a conviction that is on solid footing. … I continue to believe that lawful, well-founded appropriate sentence will be carried out,” Wrigley said. “I couldn’t tell you when I think that time frame will be, but you can see important next steps from where we’re standing.”
Durham said the most common outcome in death penalty cases is actually not execution — it’s lesser sentences and removal from death row.
At present, there are 62 federal death-row inmates. The death penalty was reinstated in 1988 and 78 people have been sentenced to death since. Only three have been executed. Meanwhile, 12 have been removed from death row and three defendants had death recommended but the sentence was not imposed.
“What typically happens in a case that’s been around that long is that it’s gone through the appellate process and been overturned and gone back for a resentencing and a retrial. ... So when it gets sent back -- which a majority of cases do -- you start all over again in the appellate process,” Durham said. “The single most likely outcome of a death penalty case once a death sentence is returned is that the conviction or death sentence will be overturned.”
Neither Minnesota nor North Dakota allow for the death penalty under state law, but because Rodriguez’s crime crossed state lines and was therefore tried in federal court, the death sentence could be, and was, imposed. Rodriguez lost an appeal through the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009. The Supreme Court declined to hear his case afterward.
And so began the habeas corpus motions. The motions call on things not discussed during trial or appeal that normally could be considered outside the record, such as juror fairness or effectiveness of counsel.
For the habeas corpus motions, which are the last leg of appeal before execution, Rodriguez is represented by federal public defenders out of the Minneapolis office.
Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to foot a mounting bill to incarcerate, prosecute and defend Rodriguez.
It cost at least $1.2 million to defend him during his original trial, according to Todd Dudgeon, deputy clerk of court at Fargo’s federal courthouse. The case was among the most costly in the courthouse’s history.
His Eighth Circuit appeal cost about $158,000, according to federal court documents.
A large chunk of that cost and subsequent expense is the cost of prosecution and the public defenders working on Rodriguez’s behalf. It's difficult to get an accurate tally on Rodriguez's impact on taxpayer dollars because public lawyers work for a salary, and not on a case-by-case or hourly basis.
“My staff and I who were working most directly on that, the lawyers I would say in a lot of instances we put in over twice as many hours as we would normally be putting in probably,” Wrigley said. “Which, all it did was it had the impact of cutting our salary in half because you don’t change the salaries in the office. So while you can say ‘these eight people were working on this case,’ it would be inappropriate to say those entire salaries are attributable to the Rodriguez case. A, it wasn’t the only thing we were doing and B, that’s what we’re there to do -- work on investigations and work on cases that we think have public merit.”
Now Rodriguez waits out his days in a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where nearly all federal death-row inmates are housed. It has cost approximately $380,000 for his incarceration since 2007, according to inmate costs listed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
His actual incarceration cost may be even higher, though, because death-row inmates are housed in a specific block of the prison. Studies have suggested it may be more costly to incarcerate an inmate facing death.
Rodriguez was housed at the Cass County Jail before his death sentence was imposed at a cost of $88,840, according to the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
Durham noted Rodriguez’s appearances in the Fargo courtroom are also expensive because additional security is needed at all times to monitor him.
“If you want to do the death penalty right, it’s going to be expensive,” Durham said. “And if you don’t want to do the death penalty right, we shouldn’t have it.”
Wrigley said prosecutors will continue to fight for what he thinks is the most lawful sentence — even if it takes another decade.
“It’s a serious decision to seek death and having gotten a death penalty in that case that was rightly instituted, we will fight for that conviction until it’s logical conclusion,” he said.