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Feds seek death

"I want to caution people that this filing contains what are only at this point allegations. They are not themselves proof. That's what trials are for ... . We look forward to the opportunity to present this case before a jury."...

"I want to caution people that this filing contains what are only at this point allegations. They are not themselves proof. That's what trials are for ... . We look forward to the opportunity to present this case before a jury."

Drew Wrigley, U.S. Attorney

FARGO - Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty when Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. goes to trial on the charge of kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley announced Thursday.

It would be the first death-penalty case tried in North Dakota in more than a century.

But it's still a long way from being an actual death penalty case, Wrigley and others said.

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"I want to caution people that this filing contains what are only at this point allegations," Wrigley said Thursday on the federal courthouse steps. "They are not themselves proof. That's what trials are for ... . We look forward to the opportunity to present this case before a jury."

That might not happen for more than a year, according to experts in federal death penalty cases.

And even when it does go to trial, the sentence might not be death.

If someone is convicted by a jury in a federal capital case, the jury then must sit again to hear evidence about whether to sentence the person to death, say experts. And more often than not, the sentence brought is life in prison, not death.

Dru Sjodin was 22 and a senior at UND when she disappeared about 5 p.m. Nov. 22 after leaving Columbia Mall, sparking massive searches involving thousands of people and national concern.

Rodriguez, 51, is a convicted sex offender who was released from a Minnesota prison in May 2003 after serving 23 years for sexual attacks on women. He was arrested Dec. 1 in his Crookston home and charged first in Grand Forks District Court with kidnapping Sjodin. Investigators say they found a knife and blood matching Sjodin's DNA in Rodriguez's car.

The search for Sjodin went on until her body was found April 17 in a ravine west of Crookston.

Quickly, it became a federal case, and Wrigley charged Rodriguez with kidnapping leading to the death of Sjodin.

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Capital threshold

In papers filed Thursday, Wrigley alleged that the case meets federal "thresholds" for the death sentence, if Rodriguez is convicted, including:

  • He killed her intentionally, "in anespecially heinous, cruel, and depraved manner, in that it involved torture and serious physical abuse."
  • He had three previous convictions involving violence, rape and kidnapping of women in Crookston in 1975 and 1980, and "participated in additional charged and uncharged serious acts of violence."
  • He poses a "continuing danger to the lives and safety of other persons," and refused treatment while in Minnesota prisons and state hospitals.
  • Rodriguez "caused loss, injury and harm to the victim and the victim's family."

Wrigley said Thursday he had talked with Sjodin's parents Wednesday evening and Thursday before his news conference.
Mom's support

Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., said the family supports Wrigley's decision to seek the death penalty.

"We look forward to the case moving ahead," she said. "We appreciate the continued support and prayers we have received from people who have brought Dru into their hearts."

Richard Ney, the expert death penalty attorney from Wichita, Kan., helping defend Rodriguez, said he was disappointed but not surprised.

"We certainly had hoped that this would not be the decision," Ney said. "We are obviously very saddened that the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. attorney have taken this action to seek the death of Alfonso."

Robert Hoy, the Fargo attorney appointed to defend Rodriguez, met with him in his Fargo jail cell Thursday afternoon to tell him of Wrigley's decision, Ney said.

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"One thing that certainly disappointed us is that this decision was made despite the long-standing position of the people of North Dakota against capital punishment," Ney said. "This administration is very zealous of state's rights, except, I guess, when it comes to decisions such as this."

Bob Heales, a Sjodin family friend and private investigator who led search efforts for months, said, "If you don't use the death penalty in a case like this, they may as well not even have it. I can't imagine a better example for the death penalty."

But the trial will be difficult for everyone, Heales said.

"It's going to create the hurt all over again," he said.

Rapid decision

It was only six weeks ago that Wrigley and Hoy and others met in Washington with the capital case review committee in the Department of Justice. It usually takes three months to a year for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to decide if a case should become a death penalty case, experts say.

"Yes, this was fast," said Dick Burr, a veteran defender in federal death penalty cases from Hugo, Okla. "But what Attorney General Ashcroft tends to do in high-profile, very public cases where there has been a lot of public outrage, he tends to authorize the death penalty and do it quickly. So, it's not unusual for that to happen that quick in such a case."

Burr is a member of the Capital Defense Network and helped defend Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

Wrigley said the death penalty decision was done "in a way that was thoughtful and took into account all of the factors that needed to be taken into consideration, all the parties that needed to weigh in."

But as he cited last summer as one of his goals in this case, the decision was done "without undue bureaucratic delay," Wrigley said.

It now will likely take 15 to 18 months before Rodriguez goes to trial, based on other federal capital cases, Burr said.

Ney said that sounded about right.

"This is not something that can be prepared quickly," Ney said. "We expect it will require some substantial amount of time for preparation. We don't have the resources of the federal government at our disposal."

Ney's and Hoy's costs, of course, will be paid by the federal court because Rodriguez was declared indigent.

His only real asset, in papers filed in Grand Forks district court, was the 2002 Mercury Sable that investigators said contained traces of Sjodin's blood.

Wrigley did not comment on a timeline, saying only he soon would meet with U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson to begin the pretrial process. Erickson declined to comment Thursday about scheduling.

Death uncertain

Despite Thursday's announcement, it's not at all certain that, even if convicted, Rodriguez would actually be sentenced to death, Ney said.

"In the vast majority of death penalty prosecutions, life verdicts have been returned. The attorney general has not been very successful in choosing his cases or getting death penalty sentences."

Just this week, a jury in a Connecticut federal court, after convicting hired killer Fausto Gonzalez on murder charges, declined prosecutors' wishes to sentence him to death, but instead gave him life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ney said the wide opposition to the death penalty in North Dakota will pose a practical problem for the defense and for the trial in general.

"The jury in a death penalty case can only be made up of people who say they are not morally opposed to the death penalty, or they will be excluded from the jury," Ney said. "In a state where there is not widespread support for the death penalty, it may be more problematic to get a jury of one's peers."

Ney said North Dakota and Minnesota are states with low crime rates "who have not found it necessary to resort to state violence to punish crime."

Ney helped defend a Moorhead man, Michael Gianakos, charged in federal court with the 1997 death of his baby sitter. Prosecutors could have sought the death penalty against Gianakos, but Ashcroft nixed it; he was found guilty of kidnapping Anne Marie Camp.

Ney said no decisions have been made about whether to seek a plea bargain.

Wrigley said only that he's eager to try the case personally, helped by several of his assistant U.S. attorneys, including Norman Anderson, Keith Reisenauer and Lynn Jordheim.

Wrigley said last summer he preferred to handle the case in Fargo, rather than Grand Forks, for practical reasons, including more space, more technologically sophisticated equipment in the courtrooms and handier security in transferring defendants into the courthouse via a lower-level garage.

Ney said the defense has not made "any firm decision," yet on whether to seek a change of venue. "It may be an issue we address with the court," he said.

Thursday, Wrigley said the case remains "venued in North Dakota," and that "the judge will decide" if it's to be moved.

Asked whether it would be difficult to find unbiased jurors in the region, Wrigley said people have a "sworn obligation to disregard any preconceived notions they may or may not have had about a case."

"I am very confident we are going to be able to seat a fair jury and have a completely fair trial in this matter."

Wrigley continued to decline to say if he had recommended the death penalty to Ashcroft, saying it's policy "to never discuss that, whether we agree or don't agree."

Experts say Ashcroft approves the death penalty in about a third of the cases in which local prosecutors recommend it to him; he sometimes overrides a U.S. attorney, making a case a capital case even when the local prosecutor did not recommend it.

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