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Nearly two weeks of new hearings planned in Rodriguez death penalty appeal

FARGO -- Nearly two weeks have been set aside next spring and summer for court hearings in Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s appeal of his death sentence. Four days starting March 28 are allotted for an evidentiary hearing on forensic issues in the murder ...

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Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

FARGO - Nearly two weeks have been set aside next spring and summer for court hearings in Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s appeal of his death sentence.

Four days starting March 28 are allotted for an evidentiary hearing on forensic issues in the murder case. An evidentiary hearing on Rodriguez's mental health is slated to start June 20 and last four days or more.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson made the scheduling decisions Tuesday, Aug. 16, at a hearing in Fargo's federal court. Erickson said he expects the mental health hearing may take longer than four days given the complexity of the issues at hand.

Rodriguez, 63, of Crookston was sentenced to death for the 2003 kidnapping, rape and murder of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student. The question of Rodriguez's mental capacity is a key element of his appeal, as the U.S. Supreme Court has held it's unconstitutional to execute an intellectually disabled person.

Rodriguez's attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Victor Abreu, told the judge that the mental health hearing will involve a significant number of witnesses, more than the forensic hearing.

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The two hearings could be the longest period of testimony seen in the case since the trial that resulted in Rodriguez's conviction in 2006.

The progress of Rodriguez's appeal has lately been slowed by a change in his defense attorneys. Abreu is one of the attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently tapped to represent Rodriguez.

Rodriguez had been represented by court-appointed attorneys Michael Wiseman, Joseph Margulies and Andrew Mohring during his appeal. But in March, the three asked to be replaced by the FCDO because of staffing changes in the federal defender system and the FCDO's expertise.

On Tuesday, at the request of the defense, the judge extended the appointment of Rodriguez's outgoing attorneys until Oct. 6, allowing them to help with the case until the FCDO is ready to take over full time.

Complicating the handoff are tens of thousands of pages of case documents that must be transferred from Rodriguez's old attorneys to his new ones. Abreu told the judge the transfer is 90 percent complete.

In 2011, attorneys filed a habeas corpus motion to appeal Rodriguez's death sentence. Considered a last-resort appeal after his direct appeals were turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the motion argues he is mentally disabled and was insane at the time of the crime, making him ineligible for the death penalty.

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