Sjodin's convicted killer stalled on death row

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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 was disappeared in November 2003.
MPR file photo

The legal battle over the conviction of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. for the fatal kidnapping of college student Dru Sjodin is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, recent court documents indicate.

Rodriguez, 59, has been awaiting execution at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., since 2007. His attorneys argue that jurors wrongfully imposed the death penalty in part due to incorrect testimony by Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee. Defense attorneys outlined their arguments in a 298-page motion filed with the U.S. District Court of North Dakota in October 2011.

Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over the original trial, ordered prosecutors to respond to the motion, with an initial deadline of May 2. Last week, Erickson agreed to extend the deadline to September 21, after prosecutors said they needed more time to prepare.

In seeking the extension, prosecutors emphasized the lengthy motion filed by the defense and the thousands of pages of court records that will need to be reviewed. The request for the extension notes that the U.S. Department of Justice just recently approved funding to hire experts to review the case.

"The government experts are now hired, and this office is in the midst of providing them voluminous amounts of investigative reports, photos, court docket items, transcripts, and laboratory results for their review, analysis, testing, and further opinion," the prosecution's motion said.

The case is among the region's most notorious killings. Sjodin, a 22-year-old student at the University of North Dakota, 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.

Rodriguez, a convicted sex offender, was arrested after he gave misleading statements to police about his whereabouts on the day of the kidnapping. A forensic search of his car found blood that matched Sjodin's DNA. At trial, McGee, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner, told jurors that Sjodin was most likely tortured and raped before she died. That detail, Rodriguez's new attorneys argue, helped convince the jury that Rodriguez should be executed.

The decision to impose the death penalty was not taken lightly by Judge Erickson. He fought back tears as he imposed the sentence at a 2007 hearing. "This is the most difficult day of my life," he said.

Rodriguez's new legal team includes prominent defense attorney and Northwestern University law professor Joseph Marguiles. The motion filed by the defense in October claims there was no convincing evidence that Sjodin was sexually assaulted. It accused McGee of mistaking animal bites for stab wounds and using faulty laboratory tests to determine whether Sjodin was sexually assaulted.

"In large part, this is a case about junk science and false forensics," the motion said.

Marguiles, reached via email Wednesday, said he did not object to the prosecution's request for an extension. He declined to comment further on the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer also declined to comment.