High court won’t hear Rodriguez appealFormer Crookston man remains on death row
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it would not hear Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s appeal of his death sentence for kidnapping and killing UND student Dru Sjodin in 2003. A separate habeas corpus appeal is expected to be filed within a year.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
The Supreme Court on Monday denied Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.’s request that it review his death sentence conviction in the 2003 kidnapping and killing of UND student Dru Sjodin, said Lynn Jordheim, who is acting U.S. attorney in the case against Rodriguez.
The decision was no surprise, and it ends his direct appeal process. But a standard separate “collateral” appeal process now is expected to be led by a new defense team.
“This is what we expected,” Jordheim said Monday.
The longtime top assistant U.S. attorney in the Fargo office, Jordheim has been in charge of the office’s case against Rodriguez since former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley stepped down more than a year ago.
When he took office last month, new U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon recused himself from the case because a member of his former law firm had a tangential connection to the case.
Sjodin was abducted Nov. 22, 2003, from a parking lot at Columbia Mall by Rodriguez, a high-risk sex offender from Crookston who had been released only six months earlier after three decades behind bars in Minnesota for sex attacks on women.
A likely suspect, Rodriguez was questioned and arrested three days later but always has denied the charges in state district court in Grand Forks.
His alibi never held up and blood with Sjodin’s DNA was found in the car he was driving that day, as well as a folding knife that matched a sheath found on the ground near Sjodin’s car in the parking lot.
Despite massive searches through the winter, Sjodin’s body wasn’t found until April 2004, only a mile west of Crookston in a ravine. It then became a federal death penalty case.
A federal jury in Fargo in 2006 convicted Rodriguez and decided his sentence should be death, the first such case in a century in North Dakota, which doesn’t have a state death penalty.
Rodriguez remains on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
A year ago, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul denied Rodriguez’s direct appeal of his sentence by a vote of 2-1, after hearing arguments in spring 2009.
One judge found that Wrigley’s impassioned arguments before the jury pushed too far, implying the defense was trying to “sell” its arguments to the jury, and unfairly pressured the jury that it had a duty to find for death.
Rodriguez’s attempt to appeal the 2-1 denial to the entire “banc” of judges in the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit was denied early this year.
That left little hope the U.S. Supreme Court would take up his direct appeal, legal experts said.
But it does not mean that Rodriguez’s appeals are finished.
Already a separate legal team has been appointed to pursue the separate, collateral appeal under the traditional concept of habeas corpus — which translates roughly to mean “you shall produce the body,” of the prisoner in court to determine that he is being lawfully imprisoned.
It’s an old and fundamental right considered a sort of last ditch defense in which the general constitutionality of a sentence can be reviewed.
In July, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over Rodriguez’s trial in Fargo, and imposed the death sentence decision by the jury in January 2007, appointed Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University, to lead the habeas corpus appeal. He also named Neil Fulton, Minot, and Katherine Mendez and Andrew Mohring from Minnesota, to assist Margulies, according to wire reports.
“Time is short and the need is great,” Margulies wrote in seeking to be assigned to the case earlier this year, according to The Associated Press.
The active prosecution, meanwhile, shifted from Fargo to Washington a year ago.
The federal government’s response in the habeas corpus process in the collateral review, as well as to Rodriguez’ petition for a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court in his direct appeal, has been handled by the solicitor general’s office in the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, Jordheim said.
That means the U.S. attorney’s office in Fargo, after devoting so many people and hours to the case for five years, mostly is standing by to see if any assistance is needed.
“There is nothing for us to do at this time but wait and see,” Jordheim said.
Rodriguez’s original federally appointed defense team also is standing down from any active role in the case.
Richard Ney, the Wichita, Kan., expert defender of death penalty cases who was appointed — along with local counsel Robert Hoy of West Fargo — to represent Rodriguez in summer 2004, said he and Hoy no longer are Rodriguez’s lawyers.
“Yes, this ends our work (representing Rodriguez) on the case,” Ney said Monday. “Whether we will be witnesses or if his lawyers will talk with us about the case,” is up to Margulies’ team, Ney said.
A year ago, after hearing of the 8th Circuit’s decision, Ney said he was disappointed but also gratified that one of the three judges “would have reversed the death sentence based on prosecutorial misconduct.”
“I guess we are left with the disturbing thought that we can put a man to death even when one of the three learned judges who heard the case believes he did not get a fair trial,” Ney said.
Under federal death penalty rules, a defendant has a year after his conviction is final — that is, his direct appeal is denied by the Supreme Court — to file a habeas corpus case.
But many other strategies still are possible, experts say.
About 60 people are on federal death row but none has been executed since 2003.
Many legal experts say that challenges since 2006 of the constitutionality of lethal injection, including the effectiveness of the sedation included, have put a hold on any more executions.
And several federal prisoners on death row in recent years have had death sentences reversed or reduced because of what prosecutors said or did during trial.