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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press Writer, Published October 02 2010

Purdon recuses self from key case

The new U.S. attorney for North Dakota won’t handle the state’s only federal death penalty case.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said Department of Justice ethics advisers have decided to keep him off a handful of cases – including that of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. – because of Purdon’s previous affiliation with the Vogel Law Firm.

Purdon’s relationship to the Rodriguez case wasn’t clear as none of the Vogel lawyers were directly involved in it. He declined to comment on a possible connection.

Rodriguez’s case will be handled by Lynn Jordheim, who served as acting U.S. attorney before Purdon was named to replace Drew Wrigley. Purdon, 41, was nominated for the job in February and confirmed in August.

“Lynn Jordheim will more than capably fill the role of acting U.S. attorney in all those cases,” Purdon said in a statement. “These sorts of recusals are part and parcel of the transition process for any new U.S. attorney who comes from the private sector.”

Rodriguez, 57, of Crookston, Minn., was convicted in 2006 in the death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin of Pequot Lakes, Minn. Sjodin was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall on Nov. 22, 2003. Authorities say she was raped, beaten and stabbed.

Rodriguez is being held on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Jordheim, a federal prosecutor for nearly 24 years, said the Justice Department “errs on the side of being cautious” over possible improprieties.

“Any time you have a new U.S. attorney coming in, there’s potential that their past professional contacts – client contacts in particular – can create, if not a real conflict of interest, at least the potential appearance of it,” Jordheim said.

Jordheim, 57, was part of the law enforcement command center that was set up in Grand Forks after Sjodin went missing.

Legal experts have said it’s unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Rodriguez’s appeal. A federal judge already has appointed lawyers to start working on the final step in the appeals process, which would officially begin when the Supreme Court rejects the case.

That last step, a so-called habeas motion, is separate from the original appeal and is meant to determine whether the federal government can continue to hold an inmate. It would be heard in the North Dakota district of federal court.

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