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Rodriguez death penalty appeal: Expert defense witnesses disagree with conclusion that Sjodin was stabbed, raped

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. listens at his bail hearing on a kidnapping charge in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks on Dec. 4, 2003. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO — An evidentiary hearing in the death penalty appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. got underway Tuesday, June 20, in U.S. District Court.

Rodriguez was convicted of the 2003 kidnapping and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.

Expert witnesses brought by defense attorneys from the Philadelphia-based Federal Community Defender Office disagreed with trial evidence that indicated that Sjodin died from knife wounds to her throat and had been sexually assaulted.

The defense contends that the testimony of stabbing and sexual assault may have influenced the jury in the 2006 death penalty sentencing phase of Rodriguez's trial.

Mark Flomenbaum, chief medical examiner for the state of Maine, testified that the evidence and statements by Rodriguez point to Sjodin having died of blunt force trauma to her throat, causing her to asphyxiate.

Flomenbaum disagreed with the conclusions of Dr. Michael McGee, the Ramsey County, Minn., medical examiner who autopsied Sjodin's body after it was found with hands tied behind her back, in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., in April 2004.

McGee had concluded Sjodin had been slashed on the neck and her right side. But Flomenbaum said slash wounds would have left Sjodin's clothing and the area around her covered in blood, and that was not seen in any of the photographs.

"Almost every single injury could be explained by post-mortem" changes, he said.

In Flomenbaum's first look at the evidence in the Sjodin case in 2011, he had concluded that Sjodin had likely been asphyxiated with a rope found tied around her neck, along with remains of a plastic bag that had been placed over her head. However, he said a description by Rodriguez of how he had killed Sjodin, including hearing some sort of snap in her neck area, led him to recently revise his conclusions on the cause of Sjodin's death to blunt trauma.

During the testimony, Sjodin family members sat quietly. At times, the face of Dru's father, Allan Sjodin, reddened, and he bowed his head. Neither Allan Sjodin nor Dru's mother, Linda Walker, wished to make a statement.

Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer got Flomenbaum to admit that other forensic experts have disagreed with his conclusions.

Reisenauer also pointed out to Flomenbaum that the rope or cord ligature found around Sjodin's neck was not 11 inches as he had stated, but long enough to have been wrapped twice around her neck.

Reisenauer then asked Flomenbaum whether Sjodin's neck could have been cut above or below where the ligature had been, or if the wound in the flank could have been caused by a knife, then opened wider as time passed after Sjodin's death.

"Anything is possible," Flomenbaum said.

The defense also had Alan Keel, a forensic scientist who specializes in serology and DNA analysis, testify to refute the conclusion that Sjodin had been raped.

Keel said testing done on samples from Sjodin's body and clothing did not turn up evidence of sperm, which he called "tough, hardy cells."

He said his firm was asked to do testing for the defense in the case, but withdrew in June 2006 because "we simply could not get the material needed" for testing.

Keel said he also studied the conclusions of other experts that tested samples taken from Sjodin's body, and of Sjodin's and Rodriguez's clothing.

He said none of the tests found sperm, other than samples from the front of Rodriguez's pants.

But Keel also acknowledged that the absence of sperm is not indicative of whether a sexual assault has taken place.

Reisenauer said the points made by Keel had been heard by the jury in the trial and that the jury still decided to convict Rodriguez and sentence him to death.

Rodriguez, 64, of Crookston, waived his right to be present at the hearing. The hearing is set to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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