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Court to hear Rodriguez appeal Thursday

Alfonso Rodriguez

A three-judge panel will hear the appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s murder conviction and death sentence Thursday in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul.

Rodriguez, 56, is in a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., under a death sentence for kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin and is not expected to attend the hourlong hearing.

Richard Ney, the Wichita, Kan., attorney appointed by the U.S. Justice Department as an expert death sentence defender for Rodriguez, and Robert Hoy, the West Fargo attorney who is Rodriguez's local counsel, are scheduled to be at the hearing.

North Dakota's U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley will argue the appeal himself, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer, is expected to be at the table with him, a spokeswoman for Wrigley said. Reisenauer is arguing another case before the appeals court this week.

Each side has 30 minutes for oral arguments that will include answering questions from the judges. It begins at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Warren E. Burger Federal Building, 316 N. Robert St., St. Paul.

Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, and father, Allan Sjodin, are expected to attend.

The 8th Circuit Court, based in St. Louis, meets regularly in St. Paul.

The Rodriguez appeal will be heard by Chief Judge James Loken of Minneapolis, Judge Michael Melloy, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Judge Duane Benton, Kansas City, Mo.

Not all the cases heard by the august body that is the last step before the U.S. Supreme Court are as grim as the Rodriguez case.

In fact, Friday in the same court, the case of Rose Mary Delgado, a Texas woman, against East Grand Forks Police Det. Rod Hajicek will be heard. She alleges an illegal arrest for theft over her failure to return a movie video to the East Grand Station in 2001 will be reviewed by the same three judges, with no oral arguments. A lower court found Hajicek did everything by the book.

While the U.S. attorney's office in North Dakota regularly argues appeals before the court in St. Paul, this is the first time Wrigley himself has argued one.

It illustrates the personal stake Wrigley has shown in this case.

He got involved informally only days after Sjodin's dramatic abduction Nov. 22, 2003 from Columbia Mall's parking lot while she was talking to her boyfriend on a cell phone.

Months before her body was found April 17, 2004, in a ravine near Crookston and the case became federal, Wrigley had an aborted negotiation with Rodriguez, prompted by Sjodin's family, to get him to reveal her body's whereabouts in exchange for the death penalty being ruled out while the case was still in North Dakota district court.

Wrigley's mother and wife often attended the long trial of Rodriguez in Fargo, and his impassioned arguments in federal court in Fargo several times brought admonishment from U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson.

Wrigley, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001, is expected to be replaced by President Barack Obama. But he says he hopes he will be allowed to complete what is, in effect, his defense of his prosecution of Rodriguez.

In fact, Wrigley's closeness to Sjodin's family is part of the Rodriguez's appeal.

The defense argues that Allan Sjodin shook Wrigley's hand "as he left the witness stand," after giving a victim impact statement during the sentencing phase of the trial. That was an "indirect comment on what Mr. Sjodin considered an appropriate punishment," which violated Rodriguez's constitutional rights, the defense argues. The same federal jury that convicted him Aug. 30, 2006, also decided his sentence should be death, not life in prison, Sept. 22, 2006.

The larger arguments seeking to have the conviction and death sentence overturned focus on what Ney and Hoy say were errors by Erickson and Wrigley handling a juror pool and a wider community they claim were unfairly prejudiced against Rodriguez because of his race, his record as a convicted sex offender who had spent most of his life in prison and the extensive media coverage of the case.

In the latest filing on the case last month, Wrigley argues that a case decided by the 8th Circuit Court last fall answers many of Rodriguez's attorneys' complaints about his own comments to the jury and the appropriateness of victim impact statements from friends of victims in such death sentence cases.