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Sex offenders file lawsuit: Accuse N.D. of favoring unnessary punishment since murder of UND student

By Dave Kolpack

Associated Press

FARGO — A federal lawsuit filed Friday by 23 sex offenders who are civilly committed to the North Dakota State Hospital says the state has favored unnecessary punishment over treatment in the 10 years since a University of North Dakota student was killed by a convicted sex offender.

The suit was originally brought in a handwritten document filed in February by Rodney Ireland, Lester McGillis and Gerald DeCoteau, three men incarcerated at the State Hospital and classified as sexually dangerous individuals. U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein in June assigned lawyers to file an amended complaint because she said “it appears the plaintiffs’ claims may have merit.”

Defendants named in the suit are Maggie Anderson, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services; Alex Schweitzer, North Dakota State Hospital superintendent; and Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Officials with the state Department of Human Services and California attorney Christopher Brancart, who wrote the amended complaint, declined to comment about the suit.

The 63-page document filed Friday accuses the state of implementing “a policy of preventative detention” after calls for tougher laws against sex offenders in the wake of the 2003 kidnapping and killing of Dru Sjodin, 22, a UND student from Pequot Lakes, Minn. Authorities said Sjodin was raped, beaten and stabbed.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who had been released from a Minnesota prison after serving a 23-year prison term for kidnapping, assault and rape, was convicted of killing Sjodin and sentenced to death. The outcry over Sjodin’s murder and Minnesota’s civil commitment program galvanized politicians and public officials, the suit says.

“The reaction of public officials in North Dakota was profound: The state adopted a de facto policy of preventative detention, determined to incapacitate sex offenders like Rodriguez from victimizing persons like Dru Sjodin,” the plaintiffs state.

The suit, which seeks class action status for all people civilly committed to the State Hospital as sexually dangerous individuals, alleges that defendants violated the rights of the plaintiffs and class members by depriving them of a realistic opportunity to be released “as determined by an appropriate mental health professional and that is within the scope of acceptable mental health treatment.”

The document says the plaintiffs were discriminated against “solely on the basis of their status as a hated minority of offenders,” and were denied their rights to privacy, free speech and trial by jury. Among specific complaints is one that says the hospital has instructed and rewarded evaluators whose recommendations prevent the release of sexually dangerous individuals.

“If an evaluator could write a report that painted each SDI as a high risk of offending, few elected state judges had the stomach for ordering their release,” the complaint says.

The plaintiffs say a study commissioned by state corrections and conducted by two University of North Dakota professors concludes that civil commitment in North Dakota is based on punishment instead of disorders or conditions that require treatment.

“There is little doubt that there are individuals that should, in fact, be committed,” the suit says. “It appears likely though that unsupported fears about sex offenders and poorly thought out policies and procedures may lead to casting too wide a net in the commitment process, thereby weakening it and making it more susceptible to challenge in the long term.”

The complaint asks that the state discontinue and change “polices, practices or procedures” that might violate the plaintiffs’ civil rights.