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Defense asks US attorney general to revoke death penalty authorization in Alfonso Rodriguez case

The authorization from the U.S. Attorney General's Office was approved in the mid-2000s. Defense attorneys for the man who kidnapped and killed Dru Sjodin have asked the Department of Justice to withdraw it.

Alfonso Rodriguez
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FARGO — Defense attorneys want the U.S. government to drop its death penalty authorization for a man who kidnapped and killed a North Dakota college student nearly 20 years ago.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota has requested a second sentencing trial for 69-year-old Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2007 for the 2003 murder of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin.

Last year, U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson, who oversaw the 2006 trial and sentencing when he was a U.S. district judge, overturned the decision to execute Rodriguez. He ruled defense attorneys were ineffective during the sentencing portion of the trial.

It’s likely Erickson will oversee a second sentencing trial

Before that happens, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will have to decide whether he’ll allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty. His predecessor gave the U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota that authorization in the mid-2000s.

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The defense said it wants that authorization withdrawn. If that happens, Rodriguez would be sentenced to life in prison.

It’s unclear how soon a trial could happen if Garland allows prosecutors to continue to seek capital punishment against Rodriguez. Prosecutors said they expect they would need about two to three months for a sentencing trial.

Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Victor Abreau of the Federal Community Defender Office in eastern Pennsylvania, and media representatives for the U.S. Department of Justice that Garland leads did not return messages left by The Forum.

Dru Sjodin.jpg
University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was abducted and killed in 2003. (Forum News Service file photo)

Rodriguez remains on death row for kidnapping Sjodin in November 2003 from Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student who worked at the mall. Prosecutors said Rodriguez sexually assaulted Sjodin, marched her down a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, slashed her throat and left her for dead in the snow.

Her body was found April 17, 2004.

Erickson ruled in his opinion reversing the death sentence that defense attorneys during the sentencing portion of the trial should have done more to challenge a medical examiner’s testimony that said Sjodin died from the slash to her neck. Experts hired by the defense said Sjodin could have died from strangulation, and an autopsy report cited suffocation or exposure as possible causes of death, along with the neck slash.

Erickson also noted a mental health evaluation may have missed a possible insanity defense and evidence that Rodriguez has severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prosecutors filed an appeal against Erickson’s ruling but withdrew it earlier this year.
The Justice Department paused federal executions in July to review policies and procedures. President Joe Biden previously said he wanted to end the death penalty. However, he has not acted to end the practice.

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His administration fought to reinstate the death penalty in high-profile cases, such as for Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, who killed nine members of a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

While Rodriguez awaits Garland’s decision, the defense and prosecution in his case plan to determine a schedule over the next six months to determine what motions need to be heard and what evidence should be considered at trial.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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