CROOKSTON, Minn. — It's been 18 years since the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin, and 14 years since Alfonso Rodriguez was sentenced to death for her kidnapping and killing, but a federal judge's recent ruling overturned the death penalty for the case and a new sentencing trial could be held for Rodriguez.

Crookston, Minnesota, woman Shirley Iverson, who was raped by Rodriguez in 1974, said the overturned sentencing has brought back painful memories and felt that the culture of secrecy had allowed him to become a rapist.

Iverson in an interview said that the difficult part of being a rape or sexual assault survivor is the extended legal process and said research shows it does prevent assaults from being reported.

"I was raped in 1974 and there really were not services for victims in place," Iverson explained. "We now have the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA, which funds victim services, but the court process, the steps that are taken, and the number of levels of appeals are in place to make sure the accused has rights in a trial. Not only in my life, but every life that he (Rodriguez) has touched has been impacted by the decades that this has gone on."

Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping Sjodin from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks on No. 22, 2003, and killing her in Minnesota just outside Crookston.

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Iverson said she spoke with Sjodin's mother since the overturned death penalty news came out plus she's spoken with the acting U.S. Attorney General Nick Chase and the U.S. attorney general that prosecuted the Rodriguez case, Drew Wrigley.

"The thing with Dru's mom is it was important for me to let her know that I will do everything I can to be Dru's voice about the terror of abduction and that Dru's not forgotten," Iverson stated. "I have come back to the area so many times to collaborate or to testify or assist with Dru's investigation and I keep trying to think if there was something I can add to those investigations over the years."

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"Each time I get on the witness stand, either on Dru's trial or other trials, it is that the validity of my experience, my assault that is questioned, even though he's already been found guilty and sentenced in my 1974 case, but the validity of that sentence comes under cross examination of his defense attorneys," she added. "It's a deep psychological process each time to go on that witness stand and currently I'm not sure if I will have to go on that stand again, and it's not a happy moment or anything I look forward to, but whatever it takes to ensure Dru has justice."

One thing that Iverson has said over and over again is that "everyone needs to report everything."

"One of the reasons I felt I had to leave the town (Crookston) after what happened to me in 1974 was it was a huge secret about the past behaviors of Alfonso and what he had done in the community," Iverson continued. "It's only in retrospect that you can see the path from allegedly stealing underwear from school lockers to abduction, stabbing, and rape. It is the culture of secrecy regarding sexual assault that allowed him to become a rapist."

University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was abducted and killed in 2003. (Forum News Service file photo)
University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was abducted and killed in 2003. (Forum News Service file photo)

Judge's opinion

In a 232-page opinion issued Sept. 3 by Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over Rodriguez's jury trial and sentencing in the mid-2000s, he states the defense attorneys were "ineffective" during the 2007 sentencing trial. Erickson called the Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee's testimony about Sjodin's cause of death as "unreliable, misleading and inaccurate."

Erickson says that prosecutors (based on McGee's testimony) had theories that Rodriguez raped Sjodin, marched her down a ravine, slashed her throat and left her to bleed to death in the snow.

Erickson has said that he believes that "speculative image contributed to the jury's decision to impose the most severe penalty" and felt that a jury may have imposed a life sentence in prison if it had heard about Rodriguez's severe mental illness.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota will look at possible options on how to proceed and could ask the court of appeals to review and reverse Erickson's decision, hold another sentencing trial and seek the death penalty again, or agree to give Rodriguez life in prison without parole. The ruling did not affect the guilty verdict and Rodriguez remains in federal prison.

(c)2021 Crookston Times, Minn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.