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Juror outraged by claims of jury misconduct Sjodin killer’s trial

FARGO, N.D. — A juror who helped convict and sentence to death the man who raped and killed Dru Sjodin is indignant over apparent allegations of juror misconduct the defense is making in its appeals aimed at sparing Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. from execution.

Rebecca Brandt Vettel, one of the five men and seven women on the jury in the 2006 trial, wants to know what the defense claims they did wrong.

“What are you saying about this awesome group of people who had nightmares, lost relationships and lost lives?” Brandt Vettel said in an interview on Friday.

Brandt Vettel plans to take off work and drive from Bismarck to Fargo next month to attend Rodriguez’s habeas corpus hearing in U.S. District Court, even though she might not get the chance to observe the arguments. Rodriguez’s attorneys have asked Judge Ralph Erickson to consider a “temporary and partial closure” of the hearing.

Defense attorneys are expected to address at the Sept. 8 hearing their claims that there was juror misconduct in the trial, in which Rodriguez was found guilty of the 2003 murder of Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student abducted from a mall in Grand Forks, N.D. 

Much of the court documentation that lays out the details of their allegation is sealed, unavailable for public review. 

During the proceedings, jurors suffered through distressing and sometimes graphic photos and descriptions of how Rodriguez kidnapped the 22-year-old Sjodin at knifepoint from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, forcing her into his car and driving her across the border. 

There, the twice-prior convicted sex offender restrained, raped, stabbed and strangled Sjodin before dumping her half-undressed body in a frozen Minnesota field, where it wasn’t discovered until after the spring thaw. 

The highly publicized case drew intense attention, and Sjodin’s murder is credited with leading to increased scrutiny of sex offenders in the region. It remains the only federal death penalty case ever prosecuted in North Dakota, a state where no death sentenced had been handed down since 1914. 

Since the trial, many jurors in the case have kept in contact. One of them, an older woman, has died. A younger male juror has died by his own hand, Brandt Vettel said. 

It’s inconceivable that any of her fellow jurors could have played fast and loose with court rules enjoining them from discussing the case and consuming news coverage during the trial, Brandt Vettel said. 

She recalled asking motel workers where they were staying to move the newspaper dispenser from the front lobby, so she could avoid headlines about the previous day’s proceedings. 

Each juror reached a decision on the death penalty based on his or her own independent analysis, Brandt Vettel said. Nor were there strong death penalty advocates or opponents flogging an agenda on the jury, she said. 

The misconduct claim diminishes the hard work and deep consideration each member put into sending Rodriguez to death row, and the long drawn-out nature of the appeals process prolongs the pain for both Sjodin’s family, and for Rodriguez’s, she said. 

“What makes me angry is the whole stupid process. ... I said this from day one,” Brandt Vettel said. “I did not put him there. He put himself there. We just made it legal.”

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