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Attorneys unsure if Supreme Court ruling on mental disabilities will affect Rodriguez death-penalty case

By Patrick Springer / Forum

FARGO – Alfonso Rodriguez once boasted of reading hundreds of books, but dropped out of school at the age of 18 without graduating.

The man convicted of the 2003 kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin is mentally retarded, according to his lawyers, and therefore should be spared the death penalty.

But prosecutors argue that Rodriguez is not mentally disabled, and therefore should be executed, as allowed under federal law.

The issue of mental disability and the death penalty resurfaced following a decision Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court that rejected rigid IQ test standards in determining whether to impose the death penalty.

Testing error presents an “unacceptable risk” of executing a mentally disabled person, which would violate the Constitution, the justices decided in a 5-4 opinion.

Some states, including Florida, use a strict threshold, such as an intelligence test score of 70 or above, to determine eligibility for capital punishment.

But the federal system under which Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced does not use a rigid test, lawyers and experts said Wednesday.

“There’s no bright-line test,” said Keith Reisenauer, an assistant U.S. attorney involved in Rodriguez’s prosecution. “There’s nothing like that.”

Joseph Margulies, one of Rodriguez’s defense lawyers, said he is aware of the Supreme Court decision striking down rigid intelligence tests.

“I haven’t had a chance to examine closely how it will intersect with our litigation,” he said, adding that he also hasn’t had a chance to consult with other lawyers on the defense team.

“It is obviously a step in the right direction,” he added. “I view it as a good decision, not just for Mr. Rodriguez. It’s a good decision for the law.”

The federal death penalty law involves weighing a number of factors in determining a defendant’s mental eligibility for the death penalty, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Even before Supreme Court rulings forbid executing mentally disabled criminals, federal law barred the practice, Dieter said.

“It was just sort of a simple exclusion, so that leaves it to a trial court” to determine, weighing expert testimony and intelligence tests, he said. “No particular restriction is written into the law.”

In an appeal pending in U.S. District Court in Fargo, Rodriguez’s lawyers have argued he suffered brain damage resulting from severe post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual abuse in childhood.

Rodriguez spoke Spanish as his first language growing up, and his family moved between Laredo, Texas, and Crookston, Minn., before settling in Crookston when he was in the third grade.

He was mocked and taunted by other children, according to court records, and his school performance declined when he was in the eighth grade. He failed ninth grade and later dropped out of school.

“I struggled in school,” Rodriguez told an interviewer. “I got D’s and F’s. Even to this day I struggled to read an article in a newspaper or magazine.”

Intelligence tests administered when Rodriguez was in school ranged from scores of 77, 79 and 80.

Mental health experts who examined Rodriguez for the defense team handling his appeal determined that he is mentally retarded and suffered from “significant defects in mental functioning, as reflected on intelligence scores and a pattern of academic failures.”

But experts for the prosecution came to a different conclusion, finding that Rodriguez scores on the low range of normal intelligence.

Prosecutors noted that Rodriguez completed a high school degree in 1979 while incarcerated in the Minnesota State Hospital.

“Al is a very good student, capable of dealing with sophisticated ideas,” one teacher at the state hospital wrote in a passage cited by prosecutors. “He reads well.”

In an interview by prosecution experts in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., Rodriguez spoke of following the news closely on cable television. He expressed the view that Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who leaked documents, was a traitor.

In the same interview, last July, Rodriguez characterized religion as “a bunch of goop,” adding, “if He’s so merciful you know so and if he doesn’t want evil in the world why doesn’t’ he get rid of it if he’s God? You know?”

Sjodin, who was a student at the University of North Dakota, was abducted from the parking lot of a shopping mall in Grand Forks. Her body later was found in a ditch near Crookston.

Rodriguez was convicted of her murder and kidnapping in Fargo in 2006. He is one of 60 federal prisoners now on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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