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Mental health hearing concludes, now it's up to a judge to decide if killer should be killed

Dru Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, right, talks about a court hearing for convicted killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in 2013 outside the federal courthouse in Fargo. At left are Sjodin's father, Allan Sjodin, and Linda Sjodin. Forum file photo1 / 3
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. listens at his bail hearing on a kidnapping charge in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks on Dec. 4, 2003. Forum file photo2 / 3
Dru Sjodin was abducted outside a Grand Forks mall and killed in 2003. 3 / 3

FARGO — A court hearing that lasted nearly two weeks is over, but it will be many months before Judge Ralph Erickson rules on the question of whether convicted killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible to be executed for the kidnapping and murder of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin.

The hearing that began Jan. 28 in federal court in Fargo wrapped up Thursday, Feb. 7, with Erickson giving lawyers a total of four months to file briefs on the mental health issue, though that timetable will not start until a transcript of the hearing has been completed.

In addition to the mental health issue, a number of other post-conviction matters also await rulings from Erickson, including defense claims that false testimony was allowed to be heard by jurors during Rodriguez's 2006 trial.

Rodriguez was convicted at that trial of kidnapping and killing Sjodin and he was sentenced to death.

Sjodin, who grew up in Pequot Lakes, Minn., was a student at the University of North Dakota in 2003 when she was abducted outside a Grand Forks mall. He body was found months later near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived with his mother.

Expert witnesses testifying for the defense during the latest appeals hearing in the case argued that Rodriguez is intellectually disabled, possibly due to malnutrition as an infant as well as prenatal and early childhood exposure to toxic farm chemicals.

They said the diagnosis is reinforced by childhood IQ test scores in the 70s and a school history of flunking grades and repeating grade levels.

Experts testifying for the government said adult IQ test scores in the 80s placed Rodriguez above the traditional threshold to be considered intellectually disabled — typically considered to be an IQ of around 70 — and they said there was little evidence Rodriguez had adaptive deficits that would make it difficult for someone to live independently.

According to hearing testimony, determining if someone has an intellectual disability is predicated on three things: an IQ of about 70; findings that a person has deficits when it comes to adapting to the demands of everyday life; and a finding that the disability arose before a person turned 18 years old.

In general, an IQ score between 90 and 110 is considered average, according to online sources.

Defense experts said that because Rodriguez, 65, has been incarcerated nearly his entire adult life judging how well he might function on his own was difficult.

Pointing to his early years, defense experts cited comments from a sister of Rodriguez who said that although she was seven years younger than her brother, she always perceived him as like a young teen who needed watching over and protection.

Government experts countered that when Rodriguez was briefly free from prison in 2003 and before he was arrested for Sjodin's kidnapping, he essentially was a caregiver to his mother and was able to maintain his mother's house and yard.

For the nine days of the latest hearing the federal courtroom in Fargo was largely empty except for court personnel, witnesses and attorneys. Rodriguez did not attend, having waived his right to be present.

There was an audience, however.

Members of Sjodin's family, particularly her mother, Linda Walker, and her father, Allan Sjodin, were in the courtroom every day of the hearing.

Members of Sjodin's family declined to comment for this story.

Dave Olson
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