FARGO - The defense presented two more witnesses Wednesday, June 21, in an evidentiary hearing in the death penalty appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Testimony from Dr. Jonathan Arden, a forensic pathologist and owner of Arden Forensics, and Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, the chief medical examiner for Oakland County, Mich., filled the second day of the hearing in U.S. District Court, and mirrored that of the two experts who testified Tuesday.
Rodriguez was convicted of the November 2003 kidnapping and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.
As with Tuesday's testimony, the defense experts disagreed with the conclusions of Dr. Michael McGee, the Ramsey County, Minn., medical examiner who autopsied Sjodin's body after it was found in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., in April 2004.
McGee had said it appeared Sjodin's throat had been slashed and that she had suffered a stab wound on her right side. He also said that while no semen had been found, acid phosphatase levels found on Sjodin's body indicated she had likely been sexually assaulted.
Attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office contend that the testimony of stabbing and sexual assault may have influenced the jury in the 2006 death penalty phase of Rodriguez's trial.
Arden said he could find no evidence that a sharp knife or object had been used to slash or stab Sjodin's neck or right side. He said decomposition and other factors tied to the body having been left exposed to the elements for five months left little tissue to be examined.
"There's no stab wounds" or anything else that "indicates the use of a knife at all," Arden said.
Arden said other areas on Sjodin's body showed similar damage to that seen on her right flank, but were not described as being caused by a knife. In addition, there was no description of internal organ damage from a knife thrust or hemorrhaging of blood that would result.
His original opinion was that Sjodin died of asphyxiation and strangulation with a cord, though he revised that in 2016 to include possible force to the neck after Rodriguez said in an interview that he pressed on the front of Sjodin's neck.
Arden also said the acid phosphatase levels found on Sjodin's body are not automatic indicators that she had been raped and that using them to say so "is incorrect and inappropriate" and that he "strongly" disagreed with McGee's conclusions. He said none of the testing done found evidence of semen or male DNA on Sjodin's body.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer repeatedly tried to get Arden to agree that a slash wound to the neck was possible.
"Is there a possibility? Sure. Is there any evidence for it? No," said Arden, who added that the damage to Sjodin's right side could also have been caused by a knife, "though that is not supported by the evidence."
Dragovic was part of a three-person panel who also looked at the autopsy findings and test results.
Dragovic said the circumstances surrounding Sjodin's death indicate that a sexual assault took place, but that it may not have involved sexual intercourse.
He also disagreed with Dr. McGee's conclusions that Sjodin had been stabbed, noting that there would have been blood on her clothes and body. He said she likely died of asphyxiation due to force being applied to her neck. "That's the only reasonable determination," he said.
However, Reisenauer reminded Dragovic that McGee had said Sjodin could have died of a slash to her neck, choking with a cord, asphyxiation, or from exposure.
Rodriguez has waived his right to be present at the hearing. The hearing resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday.