Legal system churns as Dru Sjodin's killer appeals death sentence

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was convicted of the kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin.
MPR file photo

Nine years after Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. received a death sentence for abducting and murdering 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin, his lawyers are still working to keep him alive.

Their latest efforts came Wednesday in a Fargo, N.D., courtroom. While the hearing was closed to the public, Rodriguez's attorneys in hearings earlier in the week raised allegations of juror misconduct tied to the 2006 trial.

Based on public testimony this week it appears the defense is trying to raise questions about information that was not part of the trial that may have influenced the jury's death penalty verdict.

Federal rules limit what questions jurors can be asked about the jury deliberations. Two exceptions are probably at play in this week's questioning of jurors: Was extraneous, prejudicial information improperly brought to the jury's attention? Was an outside influence improperly brought to bear on any juror?

Defense attorneys and prosecutors will file briefs on the information presented at Wednesday's hearing and the judge will rule, probably early next year, on whether this issue can be part of Rodriguez's long appeals process.

Sjodin's abduction from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot gripped the region in 2003. An extensive search followed her disapperance. Her body was found the following spring near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived. He was initially charged in state court in North Dakota, but the case was transferred to federal court.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

The search for Dru Sjodin
A massive search took place in northwestern Minnesota in late 2003 for missing University of North Dakota student, Dru Sjodin.
Scott Olson | Getty Images file

Rodriguez was a convicted level 3 sex offender in Minnesota who'd recently been released when he abducted Sjodin, who was from Pequot Lakes, Minn. He was convicted of murder in 2006. The case prompted wide discussion and some change in Minnesota sex offender laws about when sex offenders should be released.

In a second phase of the trial the jury was asked to decide if he should be sentenced to life in prison or death by lethal injection. The jury chose the death sentence.

The next stop for Rodriguez is expected in mid-January, when an evidentiary hearing takes up testimony related to his mental capacity. It's not clear what issues will be raised. But in a 2011 appeal, the defense argued Rodriguez is "mentally retarded," using a phrase that is no longer widely used.

The defense claimed, in effect, that Rodriguez suffers from an intellectual disability now and did at the time of the crime, that his execution would violate the 8th amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.