Sjodin's killer has new appeal

The new appeal by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of his death sentence in the 2003 kidnapping and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin reveals details about Rodriguez' version of the crime that have not been made public before.

The new appeal by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of his death sentence in the 2003 kidnapping and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin reveals details about Rodriguez' version of the crime that have not been made public before.

It also includes a strange and new account, claiming Rodriguez confused Sjodin with a college girl he says sexually abused him in 1959.

The habeas corpus motion filed last week in federal court in Fargo by Rodriguez' new defense team is considered the last resort appeal after his direct appeals were turned down a year ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Arrested Dec. 1, 2003, in his hometown of Crookston, Minn. -- only days after Sjodin disappeared from a Grand Forks parking lot while talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend -- Rodriguez has been in jail since. Despite massive searches involving thousands of volunteers, Sjodin's body wasn't found until April 2004, in a grassy ravine less than a mile from Crookston.


A federal jury in Fargo convicted him and determined his sentence should be death in September 2006. Rodriguez, 58, remains on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

Joseph Margulies, the Chicago law professor and attorney appointed to defend Rodriguez, filed the 298-page habeas corpus motion a week ago.

The entire document now is available on the Grand Forks Herald's website.

Finding faults

Margulies argues that a key prosecution witness falsely testified that forensic evidence proved Rodriguez raped Dru Sjodin and then slashed her throat brutally with a knife. Rather, Margulies says, Rodriguez had no clear intention of killing Sjodin.

He also argues Rodriguez is mentally disabled and was insane at the time of the crime, making him ineligible for the federal death penalty.

The habeas corpus motion for "collateral relief" asks the same U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson to set aside or vacate Rodriguez's sentence and give him a new trial.

The motion, if denied, can be appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court.


The new appeal attacks Rodriguez' former defense team, Richard Ney of Wichita, Kans., and Robert Hoy of West Fargo, for failing to pursue evidence and arguments that would have spared him the death penalty.

And it calls the work and testimony of Ramsey County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee, "junk science and false forensics"

"According to the prosecution, Mr. Rodriguez abducted Dru Sjodin, raped her, drove her to a remote field in Crookston, Minnesota, slashed her throat, and left her to bleed to death on the frozen ground," Margulies writes accurately summing up the argument of the chief prosecutor, then-U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who now is North Dakota's lieutenant governor.

"For his part, Mr. Rodriguez was depicted as little better than an animal, uncaring and unworthy," Margulies wrote. "We now know this carefully scripted talk conceals much and reveals little. Little about the government's case and even less about Alfonso Rodriguez, was true."

Wrigley, as have Ney and Hoy, declines to comment on the new appeal.

Wounds questioned

McGee emphasized in his testimony that a large gaping wound in Sjodin's throat when her body was found in the ravine indicated a deep knife wound inflicted by Rodriguez.

But Margulies cites the work of four other pathologists he elicited opinions from who criticized McGee's conclusions, saying that decomposition and animal depredation during the five months the body lay in the ravine were more likely sources of the wound; other wounds on her body were found indicating similar animal depredation and decomposition, he said.


Margulies said the defense team during trial failed to point out that temperatures in the weeks before Sjodin's body was found would have allowed extensive decomposition to take place.

He also argues that Dr. McGee "falsely" surmised, from acid phosphatase levels on a swab taken from Sjodin's body, that semen, indicating rape, was present.

But Margulies argues that in such a decomposed state as Sjodin's body, such acid phosphatase levels were possible from other sources, and he cites forensic departments in several cities and states, as well as his own defense pathologists, to dismiss McGee's work.

This issue was argued during the trial without being resolved, although the prosecution did consistently describe the attack as including a sexual assault.

Mental state

The defense should have done a better job showing the jury how intellectually impaired Rodriguez had been his whole life: failing first grade twice, having his IQ tested in the '70s several times in elementary school, not making ninth grade until he was 18, Margulies says.

"Alfonso Rodriguez is mentally retarded," Margulies says, citing "evidence that could have been uncovered by the trial team and would have been, but for their ineffectiveness. And were there no more to learn about Mr. Rodriguez than the fact that he is retarded, that would be enough. Because the law accepts what no civilized society should question: We do not kill the mentally retarded."

He also was insane, Margulies argues at another point.


Citing a psychiatrist, Pablo Stewart, who interviewed Rodriguez, Margulies' document includes Rodriguez' account of his kidnapping of Sjodin in words not made public before.

Rodriguez said nothing about the crime from the day he was arrested until he was sentenced, including refusing his sister's appeals to tell investigators where he left Sjodin's body.

Margulies says Rodriguez was insane at the time he kidnapped Sjodin and "unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions."

Rodriguez confused Sjodin with the college girl he claims had sexually abused him when he was six years old at a church camp, an account corroborated by his sister, Margulies says.

The girl wore "a college jersey," and was 19, Rodriguez told Stewart during the interview.

Temporary insanity

In speaking to Stewart, Rodriguez also revealed that he approached Sjodin after she was already sitting in her car in the Columbia Mall parking lot, a detail that never was made clear during the trial.

It also reveals that he did stalk her, to a degree, inside the mall that day.


"During my clinical interview, Alfonso described his encounter with Dru Sjodin," Stewart recounts. "He reported that he could not stop staring at her and immediately experienced a flood of emotions and physiological reactions. He described feeling fear followed by anger, and then panic. He began to dissociate, re-experiencing the abuse of his childhood. He described confused and chaotic thinking. At one level, he realized that the woman who abused him would have had to be much older than the young woman he saw at the mall. But he could not convince himself and could not act on that reality. He felt compelled to follow the woman. He described struggling with himself as he followed her. When she got to her car, she sat in the driver's seat talking on the phone with her head turned. As Alfonso approached, she looked up at him and although he had been telling himself that it couldn't be his abuser, he described feeling shock and a physical reaction of surprise when he realized that she was not the same woman who abused him. He was, by this point, in a full-blown dissociative state."

That state of temporary insanity continued during his attack on Sjodin, the psychiatrist says, according to the court document.

"Seeing a woman that resembled his abuser was a cue that triggered Alfonso's PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) symptoms.... He described going in and out of a dissociative state over the course of the crime.... He had very powerful feelings that this actually was the woman who had abused him and he re-experienced the fear and anger and confusion and anxiety of that original trauma. And there were moments when she looked at him directly in the face, when he realized that she was not his abuser and he came back to reality. But he could not control that process and could not stay with the reality that he was a grown man in 2003 and not a little boy in 1959. He was angry at his abuser, not at Dru Sjodin."

Combined with his mental retardation and PTSD, Rodriguez was in a state "where he could not stop himself," Dr. Stewart wrote in his report.

Hazy memory

Rodriguez "never intended to take her life," Stewart said, in an account never heard at trial.

"At one point, when he was driving around town with her in the car, she began to struggle and bang on the windows. He tried to subdue her, struggled with her and eventually hit her, knocking her out and drawing blood. Once she was bleeding from the face and unconscious, he put a plastic bag over her head to contain the blood and he tied it with a string. His memories of this time are very fragmented, consistent with a dissociative episode. And his description of his thinking at the time is chaotic and illogical. He does not remember exactly when he realized she was dead, but he knows that he then panicked and drove around looking for a place to put her body."

Margulies argues that if Rodriguez's defense team of Ney and Hoy had "presented this evidence, no reasonable jury would have concluded that Mr. Rodriguez had been of sound mind at the time of the offense, and that it's likely Rodriguez now would "be in a secure federal hospital rather than on death row."


Prosecutors did present evidence of the remains of a plastic bag that had been around Sjodin's head when her body was found, and that evidence was found in the car of a bloody struggle. A knife found in his car trunk had traces of blood linked to Sjodin, the investigation found.

Acting strangely

Other tidbits from the appeal include that Margulies says Rodriguez' family has a history of Alzheimer's and that he shows signs of the disease, "often repeating words over and over."

The family members have depression, too, he said, and diabetes, and Rodriguez was diagnosed with diabetes in Terre Haute in 2009.

Rodriguez was sentenced in 1980 for his knife attack -- and attempted abduction -- on a Crookston woman; together with his remaining sentence for his sexual assaults in the mid-1970s on two Crookston women, he would serve 23 years in state prison.

In 1993, when his father died in Crookston, Rodriguez was allowed to go to the wake, accompanied by a prison guard, Margulies writes.

In May 2003, he was released from prison with no restrictions and returned to Crookston to live with his mother. After a few months, he got a job installing dry wall.

In another anecdote not known previously, less than a month before his abduction of Sjodin, Rodriguez returned with family members to his hometown of Laredo, Texas, for the funeral of his Uncle Luis.

During the two-week trip, Rodriguez seemed to get more depressed and isolated, acting strangely, his family told Margulies.

Less than three weeks after returning from Laredo, Rodriguez drove his mother's car into Grand Forks, shopped at Target, went to Columbia Mall, spotted Sjodin and followed her to her car.

Stephen Lee is a reporter

at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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