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Lengthy hearing for killer of UND student underscores seemingly endless nature of death-row appeals

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 — The recent post-conviction hearing for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. underscored how prolonged the appeal process can be for a federal death penalty case.

The appeal process for Rodriguez started in 2006 after he was convicted at trial and sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing 22-year-old Dru Sjodin.

Sjodin, a native of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was a student at the University of North Dakota in 2003 when she disappeared from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks.

During a nine-day hearing in federal court in Fargo that concluded Thursday, Feb. 7, a video clip was played in which Rodriguez told an interviewer in 2013 how he hid Sjodin's body in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., shortly after he killed her.

The hearing focused on a defense claim that Rodriguez is intellectually disabled, a condition that would — if the court accepts it as fact — make Rodriguez ineligible for execution.

Federal Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over the trial and is handling appeal issues, has given lawyers in the case four months to prepare briefs on the mental health question that was explored during the hearing, a timetable that doesn't start until the hearing has been reduced to a transcript and provided to lawyers.

But the mental health question is not the only issue the judge must decide.

A past hearing covered a claim by the defense that some jurors at Rodriguez's trial made false and misleading statements about their background.

A second set of hearings focused on defense claims of alleged false evidence presented at trial regarding how Sjodin died and whether she was sexually assaulted. The defense also maintains that legal counsel Rodriguez had during his trial was ineffective because it failed to recognize and challenge the alleged false evidence.

To date, most of the defense claims have yet to be ruled on by the judge.

Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the latest hearing, the defense notified Erickson that additional appeal issues could be brought forward in the near future, though the issues in question were still being investigated.

With all that remains pending, one knowledgeable court watcher suggested that final resolution of all appeal issues may not happen for many, many months, if not years.

Taking the mental health question in isolation: If Erickson rules that Rodriguez is intellectually disabled, one outcome could be that the court would vacate the death sentence and re-sentence Rodriguez to life in prison.

If the court finds that Rodriguez did not fully prove that he is intellectually disabled, but nevertheless rules that trial counsel were ineffective in pursuing intellectual deficits as a mitigating issue, one possible outcome would be a retrial of the sentencing phase with a new jury.

Although the ultimate resolution of his case remains a mystery, one thing is clear: Rodriguez, who is 65, is living in a setting he has become very familiar with.

Information presented during the latest hearing highlighted the fact that prior to being arrested in 2003 in connection with Sjodin's kidnapping and murder, Rodriguez had already spent nearly three decades behind bars for two rapes and one attempted rape.

Since that 2003 arrest, he has spent approximately 15 more years behind bars.

Expert witnesses who testified for the defense described Rodriguez as a person whose mental development as an infant was severely compromised by malnutrition and possibly by chemicals he and his family were exposed to as migrant farm workers.

By contrast, expert witnesses testifying for the government noted that several of Rodriguez's siblings grew up to achieve advanced academic degrees.

They also suggested that problems Rodriguez experienced in school, including failing several grade levels, could be understood, at least in part, by language issues tied to the years his family traveled back and forth between Minnesota and Texas.

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