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Amy Forliti, Published February 13 2009

Rodriguez appeal focuses on evidence

ST. PAUL – Attorneys for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. asked an appeals court Thursday to overturn his conviction and death sentence in the 2003 killing of college student Dru Sjodin, arguing that improper evidence was allowed at trial.

Attorney Robert Hoy told a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prosecutors shouldn’t have been allowed to use emotional testimony from two women who were assaulted by Rodriguez in 1974. According to court records, the two prior convictions didn’t involve “serious bodily injury,” so Hoy argued that allowing the women to testify about their injuries during the sentencing portion of Rodriguez’s trial was wrong.

“The government would have this court believe that they can go back willy-nilly and open up a prior case and offer new evidence,” Hoy said.

Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, countered that U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson considered carefully before allowing the testimony, and that such issues were dealt with at length as the trial progressed.

“Nothing was imposed on the parties in this case without arguments to be heard, briefs to be had,” said Wrigley, who handled the government’s prosecution. “Neither side emerged from this saying, ‘Well, we didn’t have our day in court.”‘

Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall in November 2003. Her disappearance sparked massive searches by volunteers and drew national media coverage. Her body was discovered in a ravine near Crookston the following April. Authorities said she had been raped, beaten and stabbed.

Rodriguez, 55, of Crookston, was convicted in August 2006 of kidnapping resulting in Sjodin’s death. He was sentenced to death a month later, and is currently awaiting execution at a federal prison in Indiana.

His arrest led both Minnesota and North Dakota to tighten their procedures for dealing with sex offenders.

Rodriguez’s attorneys have raised 20 issues on appeal, in

hundreds of pages of documents. Both sides had 30 minutes to present oral arguments before Judges James B. Loken, Michael J. Melloy and Duane Benton on Thursday, so they focused on specific issues.

In addition to the prior convictions, the two sides sparred over jury instructions and the content of the prosecution’s closing argument. Hoy said it was “inflammatory” for Wrigley to suggest in closing that the death penalty was required because Sjodin was killed. Wrigley said his closing argument was on point and suggested that the jury weigh certain aggravating factors.

The appellate panel asked many questions during the hearing – specifically in the legal issues surrounding evidence of Rodriguez’s prior convictions. The panel gave no indication when it might rule.

After the arguments Thursday, Wrigley told reporters the trial was fair and that prosecutors would “fight to defend that verdict to the very end.”

“It’s about a guy with a long history of targeting and raping women, and in this case kidnapping, stripping, bagging, tying, brutally raping, viciously murdering a 22-year-old girl,” Wrigley said. “That’s what this case was about. Due process was maintained every step of the way.”

Sjodin’s parents attended the arguments.

“I think that it’s very important that as a family we have really put our back up and said that we are here for justice, for Dru and all his victims and all other victims,” said her father, Allan Sjodin.

Dru Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, said it’s been hard to listen to attorneys fight for Rodriguez’s rights.

“I guess I’m always reminded this is a criminal justice system,” she said.

In the other court filings in the case, defense attorneys have also argued that Hispanics and blacks were not adequately represented in the jury pool, and said the trial should have been moved to Minnesota. Prosecutors have said any doubts about a fair trial were resolved by an expanded jury pool and lengthy one-on-one interviews with potential jurors.

Wrigley said it’s typical for the appeals panel to rule on death penalty cases within five or six months. That will likely be followed by more legal action, he said.


Dates in case of Dru Sjodin

- Nov, 22, 2003: Sjodin disappears after talking with boyfriend on cell phone while leaving her job in Grand Forks, N.D., mall. Police find her car in the mall parking lot.

- Nov. 26, 2003: Officers interview convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. after getting tip he was in Grand Forks on day Sjodin disappeared.

- Dec. 1, 2003: Rodriguez arrested in Crookston, Minn., where he lived with his mother.

- Dec. 9, 2003: Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill confirms preliminary DNA match of blood in Rodriguez’ car to Sjodin, and says unlikely she’s alive.

- Dec. 12, 2003: National Guard troops from Minnesota and North Dakota join search for Sjodin for three days; no success.

- April 17, 2004: Authorities announce Sjodin’s body found in ravine near Crookston.

- Aug. 30, 2006: Federal jury of seven women and five men finds Rodriguez guilty of kidnapping resulting in Sjodin’s death.

- Sept. 22, 2006: Jurors sentence Rodriguez to death.

- Feb. 8, 2007: Defense attorneys appeal after Rodriguez is formally sentenced to death.

- Feb. 12, 2009: Defense attorneys and prosecutors give oral arguments before three judges of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.