By Dave Forster and Jeff Zent, Published October 29 2004
Rodriguez faces death
Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. if they can prove he kidnapped and killed college student Dru Sjodin.
Drew Wrigley, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, filed notice in Fargo's federal court Thursday that he will seek Rodriguez's execution upon a conviction.
It would be the first time federal prosecutors seek the death penalty in North Dakota, a state that doesn't have capital punishment.
Wrigley's notice to the court Thursday set the Speedy Trial Act in motion, requiring that Rodriguez's trial begin within 70 days.
The trial could be delayed, however, if prosecutors or Rodriguez's attorneys seek and are granted continuances to prepare their cases.
"We look forward to the opportunity to present this case to a jury," Wrigley told news reporters gathered on the federal courthouse steps Thursday.
Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and killing Sjodin, a 22-year-old student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He is being held in the Cass County Jail.
Wrigley said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told him late Wednesday to seek Rodriguez's death.
The 39-year-old federal prosecutor said he spoke with Sjodin's family Wednesday night. He said Sjodin's family didn't want to comment.
Richard Ney, a Kansas attorney appointed to help defend Rodriguez, said the news is disappointing because of what he called a "clear and longstanding" opposition to the death penalty in North Dakota.
"The will of the people of North Dakota and I guess Minnesota too, in a sense, is being bypassed," Ney said from his Wichita office. "And I think that, in a sense, is sad."
Robert Hoy, a Fargo attorney who also is representing Rodriguez, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Ney said he learned about the decision from Hoy, who was called by federal officials about 2 p.m. Hoy then told Rodriguez and Rodriguez's family.
Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Fargo Catholic Diocese issued a news release late Thursday saying he is disappointed in the government's decision.
"The decision is a troubling sign of the escalating disrespect for human life within our society which erodes a culture of life," Aquila said.
Rodriguez's criminal history, the circumstances surrounding Sjodin's death and the impact her death has had on her family and the region all played a part in Ashcroft's decision to seek the death penalty, Wrigley said.
Sjodin was last heard from on Nov. 22, 2003, when she abruptly ended a cell phone call outside the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks.
About two weeks later, police arrested Rodriguez, a twice-convicted sex offender, in the Crookston, Minn., home he shared with his mother since his release from prison.
On April 17, after a five-month search, Sjodin's body was found in a ravine near a county road northwest of Crookston.
Wrigley forwarded to Ashcroft his recommendation on whether to seek the death penalty about two months ago.
He said Department of Justice policy prohibits him from disclosing his recommendation.
A committee of Justice Department officials met last month with Wrigley and Rodriguez's attorneys.
The committee considered their recommendations and forwarded its own to Ashcroft.
Ney said Ashcroft's decision came a few weeks to a month faster than it did in other recent death-eligible cases he's worked on.
Wrigley said he doesn't foresee problems assembling a jury in North Dakota.
"I'm very confident that we are going to find and be able to seat a fair jury and have a completely fair trial in this matter," he said.
Rodriguez's trial is scheduled to be in Grand Forks, but U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson will decide whether it remains there, Wrigley said.
The U.S. attorney's office for North Dakota is headquartered in Fargo. Erickson, the trial judge, and Hoy also live in the Fargo area.
The Justice Department has considered seeking the death penalty for four men in North Dakota since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
Ashcroft declined to seek the death penalty against Michael Gianakos, a Moorhead man convicted July 18, 2003, of the kidnapping and murder of 22-year-old AnneMarie Camp. The jury sentenced Gianakos to life in prison.
Ashcroft also decided against seeking the execution of convicted drug dealers Michael Gamboa and Alejandrino Guerrero.
A federal jury in Fargo sentenced Gamboa in January 2003 to life in prison. Guerrero pleaded guilty in May to a drug conspiracy charge and awaits sentencing.
The last vestiges of North Dakota's capital punishment were abolished by the 1973 Legislature, nearly 68 years after the state's last hanging.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526 Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538