Average stay on death row now more than 16 years
FARGO – Alfonso Rodriguez was 53 in 2006 when a jury here sentenced him to death for the brutal kidnapping, rape and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.
He’s 61 today, waiting on death row in Terre Haute, Ind., as one of his final legal recourses to save his own life plays out.
If that appeal fails and the pattern of ever-increasing delays between sentencing and execution holds true, Rodriguez may not be injected with a lethal cocktail of chemicals until he’s in his 70s or older.
The delay between sentencing and execution for death row inmates across the nation has increased from about six years in the mid-1980s to more than 16 years in 2012, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Only five inmates sentenced to death after Rodriguez’s sentencing have been executed. Unlike Rodriguez, all of them dropped their appeals or asked to be put to death.
A law professor and expert on criminal sentencing said a mix of factors have stretched out delays: many legal avenues for appeal; a shortage of chemicals used in lethal injections and questions about their use; and a strong, nationwide push by groups opposed to the death penalty to help inmates on death row.
“It’s a very long period between when somebody gets sentenced to death and when they even get close to the execution chamber,” said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University.
Support for the death penalty has been waning for years, polling shows, as have the number of death sentences issued. Berman said that may have given anti-death penalty organizations “an opportunity to highlight what they perceive to be systemic problems.”
“The fewer cases there are, the more exposure each case gets,” he said.
Linda Walker said she’s not surprised her daughter’s killer is still alive.
“He’s never been held accountable for anything he’s ever done,” she said. “I knew he’d probably exercise his right to continue to fight.”
A federal penalty
Dru Sjodin’s death shocked the region.
The 22-year-old college student disappeared from Grand Forks in November 2003. Her body was discovered nearly five months later in a ravine near Crookston, Minn.
After a grueling 12-week trial, a jury convicted Rodriguez of kidnapping, raping and murdering Sjodin. Weeks later, the jury sentenced him to death – the first death penalty handed down in North Dakota in more than a century.
North Dakota abolished its death penalty in 1973. Six states have abolished the death penalty in the last decade, bringing the tally to 16 states that ban capital punishment.
But Rodriguez was tried in federal court, which was possible because he took Sjodin’s body across state lines.
Rodriguez and the nearly 60 others on federal death row in Terre Haute have fewer options for appeal than do inmates convicted at the state level, legal experts say, which can result in shorter delays. While someone in death row in Texas can appeal to state and federal courts, Rodriguez has no state courts to appeal to.
Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, said defendants sentenced at the state level have up to nine layers of appeal. Federal inmates like Rodriguez have just five such layers, he said.
Only three inmates convicted in federal court have been executed since the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976. Their average delay between sentencing and execution was about six years.
Rodriguez is down to what’s generally considered an inmate’s last appeal. His attorneys filed a habeas corpus motion in 2011 to appeal his death sentence, arguing that he was denied effective counsel during his trial, was insane at the time he killed Sjodin and that he is mentally diminished, making him ineligible for execution.
But a federal inmate hasn’t been executed since 2003, due in part to a court challenge to the use of lethal injection, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. All scheduled executions have been stayed as that case has proceeded through the legal system over the last six-plus years, Dieter said.
‘Juries are more skeptical’
Nearly 1,400 people have been executed since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Another roughly 3,000 inmates nationwide are awaiting their deaths, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The number of death sentences and executions has been slipping as the delay times between them have grown, statistics show.
Dieter rejected Berman’s idea that the decreasing use of the death penalty has allowed groups like his own to pounce on cases, dragging out execution dates. Instead, he said he thinks the stories of wrongfully convicted inmates – like a man on death row for 30 years in Louisiana who was exonerated just this month – have made the legal system and the public more wary of sentencing someone to death.
“Juries are more skeptical,” Dieter said. “It’s also caused the courts to look more closely for mistakes, to allow more hearings or testing.”
Warden, from Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said there have been wrongful convictions on death row in Illinois. Twenty out of the 303 people sentenced to death were later exonerated, he said.
“We’re supposed to be reserving the death penalty for the worst of the worst. If we can’t even get that fundamental question of who’s guilty versus who is innocent right, how can we possibly answer the question who deserves to live and who deserves to die?” he asked.
Nearly eight years after her daughter’s killer was sentenced to death, Walker said she tries as hard as she can to accept that Rodriguez is still alive and appealing his sentence.
“It was proven in a court of law that he was guilty,” she said. “I definitely feel that there’s been justice.”