Judge tosses death sentence in Dru Sjodin slaying

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2021

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FARGO, N.D. — A federal judge has thrown out the death sentence for a man convicted in the 2003 slaying of a North Dakota college student, saying new evidence shows that the medical examiner was “guessing” on the stand and defense lawyers did not adequately explore mental health evidence.

Judge Ralph Erickson ruled Friday that misleading testimony from the coroner, the failure of lawyers to outline the possibility of an insanity defense, and evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder had violated Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.’s constitutional rights. Erickson ordered a new sentencing phase be conducted.

Former U.S. Attorney and lead prosecutor Drew Wrigley, who tried what was North Dakota’s first and only federal death penalty case, said he disagreed with Erickson’s criticism of Rodriguez’s trial attorneys. Richard Ney, a renown capital punishment lawyer, and Richard Hoy were handpicked by Erickson to defend Rodriguez.

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“I can’t disagree with the court’s characterizations of the defense counsel — of having been inadequately prepared, inadequately investigating, inadequately cross-examining and whatever else is said throughout the opinion — strenuously enough,” Wrigley said. “These are lawyers who anyone would want defending them.”

Rodriguez has been on death row at a federal prison for nearly two decades in the death of Dru Sjodin, a Minnesota woman who was abducted from a Grand Forks mall parking lot in November 2003.

Rodriguez, a sex offender, was arrested the following month. Despite several massive searches, Sjodin’s body wasn’t found until the following April near Crookston, Minnesota.

Sjodin’s abduction and slaying prompted a dramatic shift in the way Minnesota handles sex offenders, with a drastic increase in the number that were committed indefinitely for treatment even after their prison sentences had run their course. And the national sex offender public registry, intended to give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders, was renamed for Sjodin.

Acting U.S. Attorney Nick Chase issued a statement noting Rodriguez’s guilty verdict remains in place. Chase said the Department of Justice was weighing its options.

Eric Montroy, Rodriguez’s public defender, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

In a 232-page ruling, Erickson wrote that Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee’s testimony had been “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate” about the cause of Sjodin’s death. He also wrote that Rodriguez’s attorneys did a disservice to Rodriguez by choosing to limit a mental health evaluation of their client that could have cost him a possible insanity defense.

“While it is beyond question that Rodriguez abducted and murdered Sjodin, the evidence now in the record has led the Court to conclude that errors were made that violate the United States Constitution such that due process demands a new penalty phase trial be held,” Erickson wrote.

Erickson referred specifically to McGee’s interpretation of sexual assault evidence. The judge said McGee offered opinions during trial that were not in his autopsy reports, namely that semen was found during his examination of the body and that the seminal deposit had occurred within 24 to 36 hours of Sjodin’s death.

New evidence demonstrates that McGee was “guessing” and his opinions were not scientifically supported by literature or any other expert who testified at trial, Erickson said.

“Few trials are perfect. Admittedly, even fewer trials are riddled with error because expert testimony is later proven to be so unreliable that had all the circumstances been known it would have been inadmissible,” Erickson wrote. “But, these post-conviction relief proceedings have uncovered credible evidence demonstrating that in the trial of this case, the truth was obscured.”

McGee did not immediately respond to a phone message left by The Associated Press.

Wrigley said he spoke to Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, and father, Allan Sjodin, over the weekend and said their reaction “was exactly what you would imagine; I’ll leave it at that.”

Erickson, who is now a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, choked up when he handed down the death sentence as decided by a jury in September 2006 and called it the most difficult day of his life.

In October 2007, Erickson denied the first of several appeals in the case, saying that the jury correctly decided the case on the value of each factor for and against the death penalty, rather than “sheer numbers.” Said Erickson, “The evidence is sufficient to sustain a sentence of death.’

Rodriguez later lost an appeal with the 8th Circuit in 2009 and that same year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Defense attorneys in October 2011 filed a federal habeas corpus motion, considered the last step in the appeals process.