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Ramsey County ME at center of Rodriguez legal challenge

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Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. has been convicted of the kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin, a college student from North Dakota who disappeared in November 2003. He has been sentenced to death.
MPR file photo

The lawyer for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., the Minnesota man sentenced to death for the 2003 kidnapping of college student Dru Sjodin, filed a motion  in federal court Tuesday alleging that Rodriguez is mentally retarded and was sentenced to death in part due to "junk science" presented by the medical examiner. 

The 298-page  motion  alleges the jury heard false testimony from Ramsey County chief medical examiner Michael McGee that led them to find that Sjodin had been sexually assaulted and tortured before she died. The appeal, filed by defense attorney Joseph Marguiles, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several death row inmates, accuses McGee of lying on the stand. 

"In large part, this is a case about junk science and false forensics," Marguiles wrote.

McGee, who has served as Ramsey County's chief medical examiner since 1985, did not respond to requests for comment. McGee's work has attracted criticism in recent months after a Douglas County judge overturned the conviction of an Alexandria man for the murder of his infant daughter. The judge found that McGee gave "false or incorrect" testimony at trial. McGee runs a private company that contracts with counties around the state. Law enforcement requested McGee handle the Sjodin case, according to court records.

Rodriguez, 58, has been awaiting the death penalty at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. A jury found Rodriguez guilty in 2006 for the fatal kidnapping. The  motion  seeks a new trial and the overturning of 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

The case is among the region's most notorious killings. Hundreds of people assisted in the search for Sjodin, who went missing from a Grand Forks, N.D. shopping mall in November 2003. Her body was found partially naked in a ravine near Crookston, Minn. five months later. McGee, the medical examiner, testified that Sjodin had been sexually assaulted before she died.

Rodriguez acted on impulse, his lawyer said, and did not intend to kill Sjodin.

The  motion says Rodriguez forced his way into Sjodin's car in the mall parking lot and they drove to his car a short distance away. It says Rodriguez likely killed Sjodin by accidently tying a plastic bag too tightly around her neck in his car while in the middle of a dissociative state caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The  motion also argues that without McGee's testimony, the jury would not have been able to find that Sjodin was tortured or killed in "an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner." Those findings were used by the prosecution during the sentencing phase of the trial to argue for the death penalty. 

McGee told jurors that lab tests showed that Sjodin was sexually assaulted within 24 to 36 hours of her death. Sjodin likely died of stab wounds to the neck, McGee testified, in the same location where she was found five months later.

However, Marguiles notes that McGee's interpretation of the lab tests used as evidence of sexual assault did not follow any accepted standards. Consequently, McGee should not have been allowed to testify about the lab tests, Marguiles argues. The  motion  notes that there was no other forensic evidence presented at trial to prove Sjodin was sexually assaulted other than the fact that Sjodin was found naked from the waist down.

Autopsy suite
An appeal in federal court alleges that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is mentally retarded and was sentenced to death in part due to "junk science" presented by the Ramsey County chief medical examiner, Dr. Michael McGee. The 298-page challenge alleges the jury heard false testimony from McGee that led them to find that Sjodin had been sexually assaulted and tortured before she died. McGee, in this file photo, describes features of the largest autopsy suite at the Ramsey County Medical Examiners office in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The defense asked four forensic pathologists to review the case, and they all "concluded that Dr. McGee's testimony is simply untrue," according to the motion. The pathologists each independently found that Sjodin died of strangulation or asphyxiation. In particular, they found that the neck wounds that McGee had said were stab wounds actually caused by animals who found Sjodin's body and by the decomposition process. 

"Contrary to the slow, sadistic death falsely imagined by Dr. McGee and endlessly repeated by the government, we now know the victim died during a brief struggle in the back seat of Mr. Rodriguez's car, while Mr. Rodriguez was panic-stricken, overcome by memories of his abuser, and 'in a full-blown dissociative state,'" the  motion says.

One of the pathologists asked to review the case and who disagreed with McGee's findings is retired Hennepin County medical examiner Dr. Garry Peterson. 

The  motion  said Rodriguez's attorneys at his original trial failed to recognize the extent of the problems with McGee's testimony and confused jurors by focusing on the wrong aspects of the case.

Robert Hoy, one of Rodriguez's original attorneys, did not respond to requests for comment. He has previously criticized McGee's handling of the case and had sought to block the medical examiner's testimony about the lab tests at the original trial.

ATTORNEY: RODRIGUEZ IS 'MENTALLY RETARDED,' WAS INSANE

Marguiles, Rodriguez's new attorney, claims that Rodriguez is "mentally retarded" and was insane at the time of the incident.

If jurors had known more about Rodriguez's mental health, Marguiles wrote, Rodriguez may have been sent to a federal hospital, not prison, and would not have been sentenced to death.

The  motion  paints a picture of Rodriguez as a troubled child who had been sexually abused at a church camp for migrant youth and was constantly teased by classmates for being "slow." 

The  motion  claims that Rodriguez confused Sjodin with a woman who had abused him when he was a child. Rodriguez was "passing in and out of reality and hysterical with fear" when he approached Sjodin, the defense argues. 

The  motion also notes that Rodriguez's IQ had been tested several times when he was a child and he always scored below the cut-off for mental retardation. Rodriguez was in ninth grade when he dropped out, at age 18, and went to work for the same school as a janitor, according to the appeal.