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Judge sentences Rodriguez

FARGO - Looking and sounding agonized, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson sentenced Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. to death by lethal injection Thursday for kidnapping and killing UND student Dru Sjodin more than three years ago.

FARGO - Looking and sounding agonized, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson sentenced Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. to death by lethal injection Thursday for kidnapping and killing UND student Dru Sjodin more than three years ago.

Rodriguez, who turns 54 on Feb. 18 and grew up in Crookston, will be transferred within days to death row in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where he will await the appeal process expected to take seven years or more. His defense attorney, Richard Ney, filed an immediate appeal minutes after Erickson pronounced sentence.

"Today is the most difficult day of my life," said Erickson at the opening of a deeply personal 10-minute statement during which he fought tears several times.

The burden of the duty of imposing the first death penalty in North Dakota in a century clearly weighed heavily on the large shoulders of the usually jovial judge.

With a voice vibrant with emotion in a crowded but hushed courtroom, Erickson said "If it were possible, I would gladly lay down my own life to have had this whole ordeal avoided, to have Dru Sjodin back with her family, to have never heard of you, Mr. Rodriguez."

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At this stage of the case, Erickson's imposition of the death sentence was a necessary formality. Under the Federal Death Penalty Act, a jury, not a judge, decides whether a convicted kidnapper and killer is sentenced to either death or life in prison.

Erickson could not alter the sentence. He could have granted Rodriguez a new trial instead of sentencing him. But the judge announced Thursday he had denied the defense's motion to throw out the result of a monthlong jury selection and a six-week trial.

Erickson spent weeks explaining to potential jurors the complicated and fateful task that was theirs if they were chosen for the jury.

Two of the 12 jurors who decided death for Rodriguez on Sept. 22, after first convicting him, attended the sentencing hearing Thursday, accompanied by two of the four alternates. Obviously fighting back emotion themselves during and after the hearing Thursday, they declined to comment.

Nearly a year ago, Rodriguez had agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, it was learned during his trial last summer, but U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley rejected the offer. Thursday, Sjodin's parents said after the hearing that his guilty plea came too late and meant little after he had refused to tell authorities where he left her body.

Rodriguez kidnapped Sjodin, 22, at knifepoint from a parking lot at Columbia Mall at 5 p.m. Nov. 22, 2003, interrupting her cell phone conversation with her boyfriend, Chris Lang. Several massive searches on both sides of the Red River involving hundreds of law enforcement officers and thousands of volunteers failed until her body was found April 17, 2004, in a ravine a mile west of Crookston, Rodriguez's home town.

Statements

Seventeen relatives and friends of Sjodin spoke at the sentencing hearing Thursday in federal court in Fargo, giving victim impact statements.

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Defense attorney Richard Ney objected several times to some of the statements, saying federal guidelines give family members, not friends, of victims the opportunity to make such statements at sentencing. Besides, he said, at a federal death sentencing, there is no point to such statements because the judge cannot alter the jury's decision on the sentence. "I just don't understand why we are suspending the rules," Ney said.

Erickson said it has been his practice at all court levels to allow victim impact statements to be made because "it is an opportunity for some closure and some healing. . . ."

He did, however, prevent Wrigley from reading a statement from one of Sjodin's aunts who could not attend, saying his practice is to allow people to read only their own statements.

Danielle Mark, a friend of Sjodin's from high school in Pequot Lakes, Minn., who followed Sjodin to UND, said in court that Sjodin now "was an angel above rather than a friend by my side."

Sjodin's stepfather, Sid Walker, told the court he has bad dreams since her death, "most of them ending up in that parking lot." His own mother's death was hastened by grief over Sjodin's brutal murder, he said. "When I die, I hope I'm lucky enough to end up where Dru is," he said.

Allan Sjodin, Dru's father, said he has become "very perturbed and disturbed with some of the restraints put on us," during the trial. He later explained he thinks the family members of victims such as his daughter should have more rights in the judicial system, including being able to speak more freely in testimony during the trial about his love for her.

He read a statement from Dru Sjodin's only sibling, her brother, Sven, who was unable to attend the hearing Thursday. Sven Sjodin described how close they were as brother and sister and how her murder has devastated his life with his wife and their four young children.

Erickson, a devout Roman Catholic, is a native of Thief River Falls who grew up in Langdon, N.D., and Rugby, N.D. He graduated from Jamestown (N.D.) College and UND's School of Law.

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He said Thursday that when he learned he might get this case, "I prayed with a fervor that I have never had before. I prayed for Dru Sjodin and her family and friends, I prayed for the Rodriguez family, I prayed for the prosecution team, I prayed for the defense lawyers, I prayed for our community and I prayed for you, Mr. Rodriguez."

Erickson told Rodriguez he had inflicted deep pain not only on Sjodin's family, but on his own. "Your family, Mr. Rodriguez, will die wondering what they might have done differently, wondering how things could have gone so dreadfully wrong."

Rodriguez's crime has rent civility in two states that long have eschewed putting citizens to death, Erickson said, giving a hint that he is no fan of the death penalty.

"By your actions, you have brought back into the discussion in our communities a question that the folks of Minnesota and North Dakota have long since believed were well settled. The wisdom of what seemed to be unthinkable is now openly discussed as a direct result of this senseless and horrendous act. And so, the people are divided, the political question is debated. The body politic is in pain, and the entire community of our two states suffers. All this at your hands."

Rodriguez wasted not only Dru Sjodin's life, but his own, and brought ruin to so many lives, Erickson said.

"A lifetime of pain and suffering for so many people. It is almost more than one can bear, but for a belief that the Author of justice Himself still holds the power to make things new."

Ney, also a Catholic, was the only one on Rodriguez's side who spoke in court Thursday. He said he's defended people against the death penalty since 1980.

"This is only the second time I've stood before a court to have a client sentenced to death and this is only the first time in federal court," Ney said.

Rodriguez's death sentence will not deter anyone else nor make society safer, he said.

"I know from my experience that this sentence will not bring peace or healing to one family, but I do know it will bring devastation to another," Ney said. "I know we say this is a Christian nation and we take an oath under God in this courtroom, but there's nothing Christ-like or God-like we do here today. Violence, I know, is never an answer to violence."

At a news conference after the hearing, Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, was asked if the sentencing gave her peace.

"I don't think I will ever totally find peace," she said.

Wrigley, however, said more than once Thursday in the news conference that "there is peace . . . in hard-won justice for Dru Sjodin."

Asked if he felt any "closure," Allan Sjodin said, "For me, closure isn't a word that is in my vocabulary." Maybe, he said, it does "for people on the outside, who haven't experienced the trauma. . . . But closure doesn't work for me."

His daughter remains his inspiration, Sjodin said. "In that magnetic smile of hers, she's with me every second of every day."

During her 10-minute statement in court, Linda Walker said, "my heart has been torn into a million little pieces. . . . Nothing prepares you for searching for your daughter."

It has been little things as well as the hugely horrific that ripped at her heart, Walker said: "What do you do with those Christmas stockings with your daughter's name on them?"

Packing up her things, having to give DNA samples to be used in the investigation. To buy a cemetery plot for her daughter. Then.

"I never got to see her. The savage way in which she was murdered and how animals feed from carcasses left in fields, not to mention what the procedure of an autopsy would do. . ."

She and her husband and Allan Sjodin said they have no interest in hearing from Rodriguez in court and don't even use his name. The victim impact statements Thursday were not to include recriminations of Rodriguez. One of the few mentions of him came from Linda Walker when she talked of the pain of "seeing your own daughter's face stuck beside the criminal that viciously murdered her, plastered on TV stations, in the newsstands, as if they were a couple."

After the hearing, Walker said she had talked briefly to Rodriguez's family. "They reached out before the trial, wanting us to get together," she said. "I just didn't feel comfortable with it."

Rodriguez quiet

Rodriguez's mother, Dolores Rodriguez, and one of his three sisters, Ileanna Noyes, cried quietly during the sentencing, supported by friends, including a Catholic nun who has met weekly with Rodriguez in the Fargo jail the past two years.

In blue jeans, a blue sweatshirt and blue windbreaker, Rodriguez was dressed much more casually than he ever has during his court hearings since he was arrested Dec. 1, 2003, and charged with kidnapping Sjodin.

After the sentencing, the courtroom was cleared of spectators so that Rodriguez could spend time with his mother and sister. He could have spoken during his sentencing. But when Erickson asked him if he wished to, Rodriguez shook his head and said softly, "No."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or slee@gfherald.com .

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