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North Dakota's first capital punishment case in 100 years set to begin in Fargo

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Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is charged in the kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin, a college student from North Dakota who disappeared in November 2003. He goes on trial in July 2006.
MPR file photo

For 35 years Frank Vyzrelek worked at the North Dakota Heritage Center, where he spent years researching violent  crime in the state and the death penalty.

"North Dakota has had a long experience with capital punishment," says Vyrelek.  "There have been  eight executions  in the years from the 1880s up to 1905."

Despite that, Vyzrelek says in 1915 North Dakota lawmakers repealed the death penalty. 

Dru Sjodin
Dru Sjodin, a student at the University of North Dakota, was abducted and killed in November 2003.
MPR file photo

"Except in the case where a convicted murderer at the penitentiary killed a prison guard," says Vyrelek.  "Then he would be subject to capital punishment."

And that's the way North Dakota law stood for decades.  In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, but four years later the court reversed its  decision.  Vyzrelek says despite changes made at the federal level, North Dakota lawmakers have been consistent; they oppose the death penalty.

"Only once since that time during the legislative session of 1979, there was a proposal to enact a new statue and that was beaten down pretty fast in the Legislature," says Vyrelek. 

In order to seek the death penalty  in the case against Alfonso Rodriguez Junior, officials dropped the state charges against him.  Prosecutors moved the case to federal court, because they believe Rodriguez crossed state lines while committing the crime. 

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley
North Dakota's U.S. Attorney, Drew Wrigley, is leading the prosecution of Alfonso Rodriguez.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at the New York Law school says the  federal prosecutor's action is not that uncommon. 

"My view is that federal law has too much supplanted  state law and that  although I advocate the death penalty fort those that deserve it, it should be state prosecution," says Blecker.  "If the people of a state truly don't want the death penalty, then, unless it really is a federal crime not one  of these dual sovereignty crimes where the state steps in, I don't think the feds should be making a point."

North Dakota is one  of twelve states without the death penalty. Blecker says  federal authorities shouldn't ignore the state's long opposition to capital punishment.

"The federal government has a responsibility to listen to the people of a state, so if the people  of the state  really are overwhelmingly abolitionist and they don't want the death penalty then why is the federal government intruding?" asks Blecker.  "Especially since crime is primarily  a state function to define, protect, prosecute and punish."

Defense attorney Richard Ney
Attorney Richard Ney is representing Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in his murder trial. Rodriguez is accused of kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, 22, in November 2003.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

There are several theories as to why North Dakota has opposed the death penalty. Historian Frank Vyzrelek says one reason  may be  the state's ethnic makeup.

"Most of the people here who are of Scandinavian or German-Russian origins and are pretty gentle in terms of the ideas that they grew up with," says Vyrelek.

Another reason may be religion.  Potential jurors for the trial will come from eastern North Dakota where there are 85,000  Catholics. Bishop Samuel Aquila  heads the Fargo diocese and says the church recognizes  the government has the right to take a life, however Aquila  says those cases are rare and that the church believes that life in prison is preferred to the death penalty.  Aquila  says he hasn't  met with Sjodin's family  but he realizes the family  wants justice.

"I would always try to do in that kind of situation is to really help the person understand that vengeance, or the taking of another human life  is not going to return the life of the other person nor is it going to ease a lot of their suffering," says Aquila.

Victim's mother
Linda Walker is the mother of Dru Sjodin, who was kidnapped and killed in November 2003 in northwestern Minnesota. The suspect in that case goes on trial in July.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

People closest to the Rodriguez case can't talk about it.  Attorneys   are under a gag order, which is now being challenged by Forum Communications Company of Fargo.  On the advice of the U.S. Attorney's office Dru Sjodin's parents Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin have also declined interviews.  But when prosecutors first announced they would seek the death penalty they acknowledged the family's input in the decision.

Attorneys have spent the past several months arguing motions in the case. However, many documents related to the proceedings are sealed and several of the hearings before Judge Ralph Erickson have been closed.  Gary Annear spent 35 years in the U.S. Attorney's office in Fargo.  Now retired,  Annear says it's not surprising  many of the documents haven't been made public.

"If this stuff is released in the newspaper or in the news media then for jurors it's going to creep in and they're going to form a prejudice," says Annear.  "I think that's what the court is trying to prevent."

Defense attorneys have argued their client won't  get a fair trial in Fargo. Defense lawyers commissioned  a poll of potential jurors. The results  showed 88 percent believe Alfonso Rodriguez Junior is guilty. The same poll revealed 53 percent of those surveyed  think Rodriguez deserves the death penalty. 

Dru memorial
Roadside memorial near where Dru Sjodin's body was found.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

But motions to move the trial were denied.  Former U.S. Attorney Gary Annear says other high- profile cases have been tried in Fargo.  He points to the trial for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier.  Annear  says that case drew intense media attention, without affecting the outcome. Annear believes Rodriguez's attorneys have a tough job, but they can get their client a fair trial.

"They're going to have  to be careful as far as jury selection is concerned. I don't know whether they're going to be able to personally examine each juror, each prospective juror or not," says Annear. "But they get more challenges so as a result you're going to find people who are fair and impartial."

Security is expected to be tight when the trial begins July 7th. Officials say the trial could take six to 12 weeks.