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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published December 19 2013

Attorneys convene in Rodriguez's death sentence appeal

FARGO — U.S. Judge Ralph Erickson told lawyers from both sides of the last-stage death sentence appeal by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. he would like them to "narrow" the number of issues to consider, if possible.

"There are a lot of pages, a lot of things said, a lot of issues raised," Erickson told the attorneys Thursday in federal court here during a 13-minute status conference. If there are any issues either side sees as having "less merit than others," and could abandon to concentrate on more significant ones, "it makes my life easier."

Rodriguez, 60, remains on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., convicted of the kidnapping leading to the death of UND student Dru Sjodin, who was 22 when Rodriguez took her from a parking lot in Grand Forks, Nov. 22, 2003.

His sister, Illeana Noyes, attended the hearing with a high school friend and talked with the three defense attorneys after the short conference. She lives near Crookston where Rodriguez grew up. Noyes declined comment to reporters.

Sjodin's parents, Allan Sjodin and Linda Walker, again were in attendance, as they have been for all court hearings in the case against Rodriguez, who was convicted by a jury in 2006, which also decided he should be put to death.

Erickson, who imposed the death sentence in early 2007, now must rule, eventually, on what is considered Rodriguez' last appeal. His initial appeal was rejected by a federal circuit court panel and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it.

A new defense team then was appointed for Rodriguez for the habeas corpus appeal, in which many issues can be raised claiming wrongful sentence and imprisonment. Joseph Margulies, a Chicago law professor and attorney, heads the team and was accompanied by two other attorneys Thursday in the court room.

Last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer filed the prosecution's answers to the defense team's 2011 habeas corpus appeal, both filings running to hundreds of pages.

Erickson told the attorneys it appears the many issues addressed by both sides break roughly into the conduct of attorneys during the trial, and questions about Rodriguez's mental health.

Rodriguez is arguing he had ineffective lawyers during his trial in 2006 and that he is mentally diminished for a number of reasons and that he was criminally insane at the time he killed Sjodin.

Erickson set March 7 as the deadline for Reisenauer to file the expected routine motion for summary judgement on questions the defense has raised about how the trial was conducted, and gave the defense team 28 days to respond to it.

The judge told both sides if a hearing is required after next spring's motions, he will schedule one "promptly."

The attorneys from both sides said they were going to meet behind closed doors later Thursday to discuss what matters of evidence might still need to be introduced on the record as part of the appeal. The defense team also planned to meet privately with Erickson to discuss how much money it needs to proceed, information Erickson said the prosecution was not privy to.

This appeal also can go to the federal circuit court of appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court.