A federal appeals court on Tuesday affirmed the death sentence of a convicted rapist in the 2003 kidnapping and death of a University of North Dakota student in a case that led both 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 decision came three years to the day that a federal jury in Fargo, N.D., decided Rodriguez should die for the kidnapping and killing 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 remained 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.
Rodriguez, 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.
In its 2-1 ruling, the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit 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.
The court 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.
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 its security 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.
Lynn Jordheim, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said the ruling had just arrived on his desk Tuesday morning and he didn't want to comment until he read it. Former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who prosecuted the case, planned a news conference for 10:30 a.m. in Fargo.
Defense attorney Richard Ney will ask that the appeal be reconsidered by the entire 8th circuit court.
Rodriguez remains on death row in an Indiana prison.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth Dunbar in Minneapolis and Dave Kolpack in Fargo contributed to this report.