Federal appeals court upholds death sentence in Dru Sjodin kidnapping-slaying case

By Steve Karnowski, AP
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Death sentence upheld in Dru Sjodin abduction case

MINNEAPOLIS — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence of a convicted rapist for the 2003 kidnapping and killing of a University of North Dakota student in a case that led Minnesota and North Dakota to toughen their sex-offender laws.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., of Crookston, Minn., got a fair trial and rejected his bid to overturn his death sentence. The defense said it would appeal.

The 2-1 ruling came three years to the day that a federal jury in Fargo, N.D., decided Rodriguez should die for kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin. The jury earlier found him guilty of abducting Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003, from the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall where she worked.

Despite massive searches that included National Guard troops, the 22-year-old Pequot Lakes, Minn., woman was missing for five months until her body was found near Crookston, where Rodriguez lived with his mother. Authorities said she had been raped, beaten and stabbed.

“We’re gratified by the outcome but we know this is the first step,” said Lynn Jordheim, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota. “We have prevailed at this point. This is what we hoped for.”

Rodriguez, 56, who had been released from prison just a few months before the kidnapping, appealed on several grounds, including the venue for the trial, the composition and selection of the jury, evidentiary rulings, statements by the prosecution and Sjodin’s family and friends during the penalty phase of his trial, the jury instructions during the penalty phase and the constitutionality of the death penalty.

The three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based court rejected the defense arguments on all those points. Among other things, it said the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defense motion to move the trial from North Dakota to Minnesota. It disagreed with the defense’s criticisms of the jury selection process. It said the evidence about semen in Sjodin’s body was properly admitted, as was evidence of Rodriguez’ previous convictions for sexual assault. And it rejected the defense’s claims of errors by the judge and prosecution through his trial.

Judge Michael Melloy dissented from part of the opinion. He said there were several errors in the government’s penalty-phase closing arguments that were so serious that the death sentence should be vacated and that the case should be sent back to the district court for a new penalty phase.

Melloy wrote that the prosecution mischaracterized the death penalty as the only potential way for the jury to distinguish between punishing Rodriguez for the kidnapping alone and punishing him for murder. He also wrote that the prosecution made inflammatory statements denigrating the defense team, improperly injecting emotions into the deliberations. And he said it was likely that one or more jurors believed they could not consider relevant mitigating evidence.

“In reaching this conclusion, I do not take lightly the jury’s finding of several serious aggravating factors, the extreme violence of the crimes against Dru Sjodin, or the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” Melloy wrote. “However, we must ensure that jurors have been allowed to serve their proper role with full consideration of all relevant factors and full opportunity to exercise the discretion vested solely in their hands.”

Defense attorney Richard Ney said the issues Melloy raised would be the key to the defense’s petition to the full 8th Circuit to rehear the appeal.

“We’re, to say the least, disappointed with the decision but we are gratified by the fact that Judge Melloy would have reversed the death sentence based on prosecutorial misconduct,” Ney said. “I guess we’re left with the disturbing thought that we can put a man to death even when one of the three learned judges who heard the case believes he did not get a fair trial.”

Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, said the family was pleased with Tuesday’s ruling, but she’s sure that the process isn’t over yet.

“We have absolutely the best legal team as possible. This latest success is because of them. We’re very grateful as a family,” Walker said.

A dozen new laws against sex offenders have been enacted in North Dakota because of the case.

Minnesota toughened its procedures for handling sexual predators after coming under fire for letting Rodriguez go free six months before Sjodin’s abduction, after he served 23 years in prison for a previous conviction. While state officials had classified him as a Level 3 sex offender, the kind most likely to re-offend, they opted not to try to commit civilly, which would have let the state hold him indefinitely.

Minnesota now keeps more sex offenders locked up longer, supervises them more closely once they do get out of prison and commits more of them to secure mental hospitals once their prison sentences run out.

“This is another reason why we should not let these predators out to reoffend time and time again,” Walker said of the state’s failure to keep Rodriguez confined earlier.

Drew Wrigley, the former U.S. attorney for North Dakota who prosecuted the case, and Jordheim, the acting U.S. attorney, downplayed the significance of Melloy’s dissent.

“Make no mistake about it, the case has been upheld,” Wrigley told reporters in Fargo. “This is not uncommon at all to have dissents and decisions. It happens regularly and we take that in stride.”

Associated Press writers Elizabeth Dunbar in Minneapolis and Dave Kolpack in Fargo contributed to this report.

On the Net:

The 8th Circuit’s opinion is at: www.ca8.uscourts.gov/opinions/opinions.html

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