Judge appoints new lawyers for last-ditch appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr's death sentenceA federal judge has appointed lawyers to work on what is considered the final step in the legal appeals process for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who's awaiting execution for the 2003 kidnapping and killing of UND student Dru Sjodin.
By: Associated Press,
FARGO — Lawyers have begun working on what is considered the final step in the legal appeals process for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing UND student Dru Sjodin in 2003.
The case for Rodriguez will be filed under a federal rule of habeas corpus, based on a centuries-old right of a prisoner to have his incarceration reviewed in open court.
The motion is separate from the original appeal based on the merits of the case itself and is meant to determine whether the federal government can continue to hold an inmate.
“This is going to be, in all likelihood, his last shot,” said Joseph Daly, a Hamline University law professor who has participated in death penalty appeals.
Habeas corpus motions typically are filed once a conviction becomes final. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson appointed defenders to the new case earlier this week even though the U.S. Supreme Court has not decided whether it will hear arguments on the appeal.
The justices are likely to decide in October whether to take up Rodriguez’s appeal.
Should they decline, his lawyers will have one year to file their case.
“If the U.S. Supreme Court does not hear the case, then he is probably coming to the end of his avenues of appeals and motions sometime in 2012,” Daly said. “But lawyers are very creative and (habeas corpus) gives them avenues beyond the regular appeal process.”
Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was abducted from the parking lot at Columbia Mall Nov. 22, 2003, while talking with her boyfriend on her cell phone.
Rodriguez, 57, a convicted sex offender back living in his home town of Crookston, was fingered within three days and arrested Dec. 1, 2003.
But Sjodin’s body wasn't found, despited massive searches, until April 17, 2004, in a ravine only a mile west of Crookston.
Authorities said Rodriguez had raped, beaten and stabbed her. I
n 2006, a federal jury in Fargo convicted Rodriguez, then decided his sentence should be death, which Judge Erickson pronounced in early 2007.
It was North Dakota’s first federal death penalty case.
Rodriguez was a high-risk sex offender released from a Minnesota prison only months before Sjodin's death, after he had spent all his adult life behind bars for sex attacks on women.
National attention on Sjodin's dramatic abduction and death led to tougher laws for convicted sex offenders, partly due to the active role her mother, Linda Walker, took in lobbying for such changes.
Last September, Rodriguez lost his appeal with a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, in a 2-1 vote. Rodriguez asked for a hearing in front of the full circuit court, which was denied in February.
The chances of the Supreme Court taking up the appeal are “almost nil,” Daly said.
“I suppose the thought for assigning counsel now is, ‘Why not, you might as well go ahead with this.”‘
Erickson appointed Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor, to lead the defense team. Margulies has represented several death row inmates and recently defended Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“Time is short, and the need is great,” Margulies wrote in court documents asking to be assigned the case. He did not return phone messages from The Associated Press.
Erickson authorized three federal public defenders to help with the motion, Katherine Mendez and Andrew Mohring from Minnesota, and Neil Fulton from North Dakota.
Rodriguez’s trial lawyers, Richard Ney from Wichita, Kan., and Robert Hoy, of West Fargo, continue to work on the original appeal.