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Appeals court affirms death sentence in Dru Sjodin murder

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

The team of prosecutors who made the federal case against Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. said at a noon news conference they were glad but not surprised to learn that the Crookston man's death sentence appeal was rebuffed by a federal court in Minneapolis.

"We are gratified by this outcome," said acting U.S. Attorney Lynn Jordheim. "But we know this is just a step on the road to the ultimate resolution of this case."

The decision by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came down three years to the day that a jury decided Rodriguez should die for the kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003. It's the first death penalty case in North Dakota, which has no state death penalty law, in a century.

Rodriguez remains on death row in a federal prison in Indiana. His attorneys, including Bob Hoy, West Fargo, N.D., are expected to further appeal the case.

Wrigley replaced

Just last month, Jordheim replaced Drew Wrigley, who stepped down after eight years as the chief federal prosecutor in North Dakota and who has been clear that the case against Rodriguez was like no other for him.

Wrigley's wife and mother often attended the trial of Rodriguez three years ago in a Fargo court room, and he became close to Sjodin's family.

He said today he wanted to stay in office as long as possible but left knowing the case against Rodriguez was handled well and would continue to be.

"This case is not about any individual prosecutor. This case is about this office," he said at the news conference, flanked one last time by Jordheim and the two who helped him try the case in the courtroom: Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer and now-retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Norm Anderson.

"This case remains in extremely capable hands," Wrigley said.

Since arguing against the appeal in a hearing last spring in Minneapolis, Wrigley said there had been no communication between the U.S. attorney's office and the appeals panel, which is usual.

Unfair venue

Rodriguez' attorneys had argued that Fargo was an unfair venue for the trial because of the massive publicity over Sjodin's dramatic abduction from the Columbia Mall parking lot. The appeal also argued that racism in the region affected the jury selection, the jury's decision to convict Rodriguez and find him eligible for the death penalty. The appeal also challenged the constitutionality of the federal death penalty, and alleged errors by the prosecution, in arguments led by veteran defender of death penalty cases, Richard Ney, Wichita, Kan., and Hoy last spring.

The appeal got the ear of one of the three federal judges who heard it last spring in Minneapolis. Judge Michael Melloy dissented from the other two judges, saying there were errors by prosecutors during the penalty phase of the trial that were serious enough that the death sentence should be overturned. But the two-judge majority said that prosecutors did not abuse their discretion and did not make errors serious enough to affect the justice of the conviction and death penalty.

National attention

The kidnapping and murder of Sjodin, 23, by a long-imprisoned sex offender galvanized the nation and has led to tightening of state and federal laws and watchfulness of sex offenders. Rodriguez had been released in May 2003 after spending effectively his entire adult life to that point behind bars for violent sexual assaults to three women in Crookston. Prosecutors proved to a jury that he stalked and abducted Sjodin, assaulted her, killed her and left her body in a farm field ditch only a mile from Crookston, where it was found April 17, 2004, after thousands spent months searching.

Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, Pequot Lakes, Minn., told The Associated Press today she knows this case will continue and that her family's pain hasn't left. She has become an activist in making better laws to protect women especially from sex offenders.

"This is another reason why we should not let these predators out to reoffend time and time again," Walker said today of Rodriguez' crime against her daughter.

Wrigley has begun his new job as a corporate security consultant for Noridian, a branch of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, in Fargo. He said he learned of the appeals court decision only this morning, as did the U.S. attorney's office, and that he had no heads up about the decision coming that affected his leaving office.

The Obama administration has begun its process to select a permanent U.S. attorney. Jordheim, who has been an assistant in the office for 22 years, said although he was not one of the trial lawyers in the Rodriguez case, he is very familiar with it. "I've been involved in this case since Day One," he said today, adding he was not surprised at the federal appeals panel's 77-page decision. "We have been confident about it."