FARGO — A federal judge has overturned the death penalty for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who had been sentenced nearly 15 years ago for kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.
Eighth Circuit Court Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson ordered in a 232-page opinion issued Friday, Sept. 3, a new sentencing trial for the man convicted of killing Sjodin, 22, in 2003. Rodriguez, 68, was the only person on death row connected to a murder case in North Dakota.
Erickson, who presided over Rodriguez's jury trial and sentencing in the mid-2000s, issued the latest ruling as a trial judge for the U.S. District Court for North Dakota. The decision states defense attorneys were ineffective during the 2007 sentencing trial.
Rodriguez was convicted in September 2006 of kidnapping Sjodin from the Columbia Mall on Nov. 22, 2003, in Grand Forks and killing her in Minnesota.
Her body was found April 17, 2004, in a ravine west of Crookston, Minnesota. An autopsy report said she died from a wound to her neck, suffocation or exposure.
Erickson's ruling found Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee’s testimony about Sjodin's cause of death was "unreliable, misleading and inaccurate." Prosecutors based on McGee's testimony theories that Rodriguez raped Sjodin, marched her down a ravine, slashed her throat and left her to bleed to death in the snow.
"That image has now been shown to be based entirely on speculation," Erickson said. "Without question, that speculative image contributed to the jury’s decision to impose the most severe penalty."
Other experts contradicted McGee's findings by saying she could have died from strangulation, Erickson said in noting the defense could have challenged McGee's testimony.
The judge also determined Rodriguez's mental health evaluation could have missed a possible insanity defense and evidence Rodriguez has severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The government told the jury repeatedly that this case was about Rodriguez’s intentional and deliberate choices," Erickson said. "That may not be the truth."
A jury may have imposed a life sentence if it heard about Rodriguez's severe mental illness, Erickson said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota said in a statement it will look at all possible options on how to proceed. The office could ask the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to review and reverse Erickson's decision, hold another sentencing trial and seek the death penalty again, or agree to give Rodriguez the minimum sentence of life in prison without parole.
"The ruling does not affect the guilty verdict in the case, and Rodriguez remains in federal prison," Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas Chase said in the statement.
If the case goes to the Eighth Circuit, Erickson would likely have to recuse himself from the case.
'The very best chance he had'
Former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley prosecuted the case from its beginning into 2009, when the Eighth Circuit Court upheld the conviction and sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court also rejected a request to hear Rodriguez's case.
Wrigley praised Rodriguez’s trial attorneys, Robert Hoy and Richard Ney, as some of the best attorneys he's known. In disputing claims that Hoy and Ney were ineffective counsel, Wrigley said the defense gave Rodriguez "the very best chance he had" at avoiding the death penalty.
"These assertions by the court I think are indefensible," Wrigley said. "I'm in this strange situation ... of defending two men with whom I went toe-to-toe on a very important matter."
Erickson, who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2017, said both sides were represented by experienced, well-respected attorneys. His ruling, he wrote, was not intended to undermine Hoy's and Ney's work, nor was he second-guessing his own decisions with the evidence he had at the time of the trial.
“While it is beyond question that Rodriguez abducted and murdered Sjodin, the evidence now in the record has led the court to conclude that errors were made that violate the U.S. Constitution such that due process demands a new penalty phase trial be held,” Erickson wrote.
Judges typically don't comment on cases, Erickson's office said.
Ney and Hoy declined to comment. McGee and Rodriguez's public defense attorney, Victor Abreau of Philadelphia, did not return messages left by The Forum.
Breaking down the findings
Erickson acknowledged Rodriguez's intellectual disability in his ruling, though it did not play a role in the judge's decision.
The trial defense team, which did not represent Rodriguez in the most recent appeal, could have done more to disprove allegations that Rodriguez raped Sjodin before killing her, the judge ruled. Rodriguez's appeal team argued there was evidence that suggested Sjodin was not raped.
However, proving that theory would not have resulted in a sentence other than the death penalty, Erickson wrote.
He noted Sjodin was found naked from the waist down with her hands tied behind her back. Combined with Rodriguez's past criminal history involving sexual assault, a jury could determine the defendant's motives were sex-related, Erickson wrote.
Erickson did rule that McGee didn't attempt to support his trial opinions, suggesting the only reasonable conclusion to draw is the jury didn't hear the truth about the cause of death. Erickson challenged McGee's credibility in noting past cases where judges found the medical examiner gave false or misleading information regarding causes of death.
McGee took on the role of a “super sleuth” instead of simply following the evidence and science, Erickson wrote. He provided the government with a theory to warrant the death penalty, but that theory was not disclosed properly before the trial, the judge said.
“Worse yet, it was a theory unsupportable by competent evidence,” the judge wrote.
Wrigley suggested it doesn't matter if Sjodin died of exposure, asphyxiation, strangulation or from a knife wound. He emphasized she was beaten, marched out into the wilderness and left to die.
"You tell me which of those wouldn't have had Alfonso Rodriguez exactly where he is today," he said.
Wrigley also questioned why Erickson mentioned Rodriguez's PTSD since the defense waived that argument.
"They waived it because they know it is so baseless," Wrigley said, adding both sides called an array of mental health experts.
The defense team directed its mental health experts not to discuss the circumstances of Sjodin's death with Rodriguez, which ultimately hindered the investigation into the defendant's mental health condition, Erickson wrote. Rodriguez was sexually abused as a child and was diagnosed with PTSD.
The judge wrote that Rodriguez's PTSD could have been so severe it may have caused dissociative states, meaning he lost sense of reality.
Whether Rodriguez would be put to death already was in question after President Joe Biden voiced opposition to capital punishment. The U.S. Department of Justice in July issued a moratorium on executions.
Wrigley said seeking the death penalty for Rodriguez was worth every minute, adding there were multiple aggravating factors that warranted capital punishment.
"Rodriguez is worse than a cold blooded murderer with an impulse that he can't control," Wrigley said. "He was a serial rapist who murdered for his own convenience."