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Dave Roepke, Published September 01 2011

5 years after Rodriguez convicted for Dru Sjodin's murder: ‘Nothing but sadness’

FARGO – Five years ago this week, a federal jury in Fargo convicted and later sentenced to death the man who kidnapped, raped and murdered Dru Sjodin.

But the pain is still there.

For Sjodin’s mother, time does nothing to remedy the deep emotional scars inflicted by the brutality of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

“I have to live my life without Dru every single day,” said Linda Walker. “The wounds are far deeper than anyone can see or even imagine unless they have been there.”

For the lead prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney and now North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, the highest-profile case in his career as a prosecutor brought him no sense of catharsis.

“It doesn’t work that way at all,” he said. “In the wake of it, there’s nothing but sadness. That’s all there is.”

For one of the 12 jurors who unanimously agreed a killer deserved to be killed, the three arduous months in the jury box were the source of a repeating post-trial nightmare. It was the same scenario, waking her up in a panic on 50 nights, by her own estimate.

At a fair, a sea of heads everywhere, she would lose track of her own daughter before suddenly being in a quiet room, and as a police radio pierces the silence, a thought hits her: It’s been three days. Where is she?

“When you sit through that every day, it’s hard not to personalize yourself with her mom. That could be me sitting there. That could be my daughter,” said Rebecca Jensen, a single mother from Jamestown, N.D., who served on the Rodriguez jury.

The Rodriguez case, the first in North Dakota in which a federal execution has been ordered, is often credited as the impetus for a stiffening of sex offender laws given he was a convicted rapist released just six months before Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was kidnapped at a Grand Forks mall on Nov. 22, 2003.

The imprint left on those involved might be just as lasting, and the effect both personal and broader intersect for Walker. She has worked as an advocate for reforming laws pertaining to sexual predators, helping establish a national sex offender registry and arguing against cuts to task forces investigating online crimes against children.

Lately, she’s been pushing schools nationwide to take up radKIDS, which is a safety program aimed at teaching children to resist aggression defensively. A memorial road race was held for her daughter in Pequot Lakes in August, an event that keeps growing and had nearly 500 participants this year, with all proceeds being donated to radKIDS.

Walker said her advocacy work is part of her healing process, and she hopes it helps people realize that violence can strike anyone.

“That’s what I hope people get out of hearing Dru’s name again,” she said.

Wrigley said in an interview this week that every case of violence he’s prosecuted affects him, but there is no denying the impact of what happened five years ago.

“I don’t know that a week of my life goes by that something doesn’t remind me about that trial,” said Wrigley, whether its memories of the trial springing to mind on a long run or strangers who stop him in the street to thank him for his work on the case.

Wrigley said he hopes the element of the trial that doesn’t get lost is that the prosecution and decision to seek an execution, a move he argued in favor of with the U.S. Department of Justice, sprang from the violent history for which Rodriguez was responsible.

“People need to remember this was a just result based on the facts of the case,” Wrigley said. “Alfonso Rodriguez is where he belongs – precisely the place, death row.”

The 58-year-old Crookston, Minn., man remains on federal death row in an Indiana prison. His direct appeals have been denied, and he’s been appointed a new attorney to assist in preparing what’s considered one of the final steps in the appeals process, a habeas corpus motion.

Lynn Jordheim, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the district of North Dakota, said there’s an October deadline for filing the motion, a constitutional provision allowing inmates to contest imprisonment. The defense attorney, Joseph Margulies, didn’t return a message seeking comment.

“I believe the verdict was justly won, and now it’s being justly defended,” said Wrigley, adding that he thinks the defense of the appeal is in good hands.

Jensen said while no one should be put in the sort of position she and her fellow jurors were – deciding if a person should be sentenced to die – she has no regrets.

“I feel comfortable with the decision,” she said. “I didn’t do this to him. He did this to him.”

Jensen said the jury met a few times as a group after the trial was over, though most of those connections faded over the years. Her experience serving on the case, however, has made her sensitive to fairness in the court system. Outrage earlier this summer when a Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty in the death of her daughter was not shared by Jensen.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” Jensen said. “They probably wanted to convict her, but they couldn’t. I just want to stand up and say, ‘Stop blaming them; it’s not their fault.’ ”

The main effect, though, was making her appreciate her children and to educate them on how to stay safe. She reminds them often to look right at a video camera every time they see one so it can get a good look.

“She’ll wave up at it, like, hey, here I come,” Jensen said of one of her children.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535