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Feds Ask 8th Circuit to Reinstate Death Sentence for Dru Sjodin's Killer

By Laura Temme, Esq. on March 11, 2022 8:13 AM

Federal prosecutors have indicated they will appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to restore the death sentence given to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. for the 2003 murder of Dru Sjodin.

Judge Ralph Erickson, who oversaw Rodriguez's trial as a U.S. District Court judge and is now on the Eighth Circuit, ordered a new sentencing phase in the case last year, finding that misleading expert testimony and a limited mental health evaluation violated Rodriguez's constitutional rights.

College Student's Disappearance Shocks the Midwest

In 2003, just before Thanksgiving, 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin went missing after leaving a shopping mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Her disappearance triggered massive searches throughout the Grand Forks area. Rodriguez, a prior sex offender, was arrested a month after Sjodin disappeared—but authorities did not recover her body for another four months. She was found in a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, in April 2004. Her hands were tied behind her back, and medical examiners concluded that she had been sexually assaulted.

In 2006, a federal jury convicted Rodriguez of kidnapping Sjodin, transporting her across the state line into Minnesota, and killing her. The jury sentenced Rodriguez to death—the first federal death penalty case in North Dakota's history.

The case profoundly affected Minnesota law, prompting a dramatic shift in how the state handles sex offenders. At the federal level, Sjodin's abduction and death led to the enaction of "Dru's Law," a portion of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Among other things, Dru's Law renamed the National Sex Offender Public Registry to the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW).

Mental Health and Cause of Death Evidence Grounds for New Sentencing Phase

At Rodriguez's murder trial, the jury heard conflicting testimony regarding the cause of Sjodin's death. Defense experts argued that the cause of death was likely asphyxiation, while a county medical examiner stated that Sjodin's throat had been slashed. The autopsy itself stated that the cause of death could have been asphyxiation/suffocation, a slash wound to the neck, or exposure to the elements.

Rodriguez made several appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied review. In 2009, the Eighth Circuit affirmed his conviction and death sentence. However, a partial concurrence written by Judge Michael Melloy pointed out several errors in the penalty phase that he believed warranted a redo of sentencing.

In 2011, Rodriguez alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. Judge Erickson rejected all but two of the 21 arguments Rodriguez made. But, in a 232-page ruling, he held that the testimony from the county medical examiner about Sjodin's cause of death was "unsupported, misleading, and inaccurate." 

Read Judge Erickson's full opinion with a free trial of Westlaw Edge.

In addition, Judge Erickson held that the decision by defense attorneys to limit Rodriguez's mental health evaluation might have cost him the possibility of pleading insanity, stating:

"An adequate investigation would have exposed a possible insanity defense, and, at a minimum, information indicating that Rodriguez suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") so severe that he sometimes has dissociative experiences."

If the jury had heard evidence about such a severe mental health condition, Judge Erickson concluded, "there is a reasonable probability at least one juror" would have opted to impose a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota filed its notice of appeal on Thursday, March 3.

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