FARGO — A man convicted in North Dakota of kidnapping and killing a University of North Dakota student more than a decade ago should not have his death sentence overturned, federal prosecutors argued while disputing claims the defendant is intellectually disabled.

North Dakota U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley laid out in a court filing why a defense motion to overturn Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.’s death sentence should be denied. The brief filed last week was unsealed Wednesday, Dec. 9.

The defense has argued the 67-year-old Rodriguez, who was convicted in 2006 of kidnapping 22-year-old Dru Sjodin in North Dakota, has an intellectual disability that dates back to his childhood.

Therefore, he cannot be executed for her death and should get another sentencing hearing, the defense argued.

Dru Sjodin was abducted outside a Grand Forks mall and killed in 2003.
Dru Sjodin was abducted outside a Grand Forks mall and killed in 2003. Submitted photo

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Sjodin disappeared in November 2003 from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Her body was found in April 2004 near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived with his mother.

An autopsy found Sjodin died due to homicidal violence, possibly from a slash to her neck, asphyxiation, strangulation or exposure to cold weather, according to court documents. Evidence also suggested she was raped.

In May 2004, Rodriguez was indicted in the case. A jury found his actions, past history of sexual assault and other factors warranted the death penalty.

The defense argued in its September brief that Rodriguez was exposed to toxins in pesticides used in the Red River Valley that altered his DNA and, in turn, caused brain damage that impacted his ability to make decisions. It also lists other risk factors that may have impacted his intelligence, such as experiencing malnutrition as a baby, chronic poverty, parental neglect and abuse, and sexual abuse.

The defense also noted his low IQ.

The jury may have sentenced Rodriguez to life in prison instead of death if it was aware of his condition, the defense argued. Rodriguez's current defense team, which is based in Pennsylvania, argued his trial attorneys, who are not representing Rodriguez in his appeal, were ineffective because they did not sufficiently investigate evidence of his intellectual disability, according to the court filing.

The defense cited Atkins v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says executing an intellectually disabled convict would be cruel and unusual punishment, which would violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Wrigley argued in his brief Rodriguez is not intellectually disabled, and the defense has not met the burden of proof that would exempt him from the death penalty. He noted Rodriguez passed a general educational development (GED) test and has demonstrated his intelligence through reasoning, problem-solving, planning, reading and other skills.

Wrigley also disputed conclusions that exposure to pesticides would lead to Rodriguez committing a violent crime. Thousands, including Wrigley, were exposed to chemicals in the Valley, but there is no evidence or study linking pesticides to “specific higher incidence of brain damage” for Crookston residents, he said.

Wrigley said Rodriguez’s intellectual disability was not brought up in his previous cases. The defendant had seasoned, capable attorneys for his death penalty trial who decided not to pursue the Atkins strategy, the prosecutor added.

The jury who decided Rodriguez's sentence found intellectual disability was irrelevant, according to court filings.

“The aggravating evidence is too overwhelming, and Rodriguez’s 'new' mitigating testimony simply rehashes evidence the jury did not find convincing at trial,” Wrigley wrote. “Rodriguez falls well short of his burden to persuade this court to conclude that even one juror would have struck a different balance.”