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Alfonso Rodriguez's intellectual disability did not play a role in overturning death sentence

Prosecutors still haven't decided whether they will seek capital punishment again.

Alfonso Rodriguez
Alfonso Rodriguez
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FARGO — An intellectual disability of a man who kidnapped and killed a North Dakota college student was not a factor that prevented him from being sentenced to death, a judge who previously overturned the death penalty said.

Judge Ralph Erickson will not amend his opinion that ordered another sentencing hearing for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. to include his disability as a mitigating factor, according to a Jan. 3 order. The 68-year-old defendant remains in federal prison for the November 2003 killing of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin.

A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2007 after prosecutors argued he kidnapped Sjodin from Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, raped her and killed her. Her body was found in April 2004 in a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota.

Defense attorneys should have challenged a medical examiner’s testimony about Sjodin’s cause of death, Erickson wrote in a September opinion that overturned the death sentence. The testimony, which Erickson described as "unreliable, misleading and inaccurate,” noted Sjodin’s throat was slashed and she bled to death.

Erickson said that analysis was based on speculation. Other experts testified that she could have died from strangulation.

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Dru Sjodin
Dru Sjodin

A mental health evaluation also possibly missed evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder and an insanity defense for Rodriguez, Erickson wrote.

The September opinion noted Rodriguez’s intellectual disability, but Erickson said it did not play a role in his decision to order another sentencing hearing.

Appeal attorneys said Erickson was wrong to exclude Rodriguez’s disability as a reason that he cannot be executed. In an October request to reconsider the decision, Rodriguez’s attorneys said the defendant was exposed to neurotoxic pesticides before he was born and as a child, and he started drinking alcohol at an early age.

That would have contributed to his intellectual disability, the appeal attorneys argued. Rodriguez’s IQ is 74, which would make him cognitively impaired.

He also has a history of brain trauma, symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a family history of dementia, court documents said.

A person who displays deficits in intellectual function and adaptive behavior, as well as onset of the condition before age 18, cannot be executed. That would violate the Eighth Amendment clause that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Rodriguez’s attorneys did not present new evidence for his argument, nor did they prove that the court erred in its ruling, Erickson wrote this month.

Erickson’s rulings did not overturn a guilty verdict for Rodriguez, meaning he will spend the rest of his life in federal prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota has yet to decide whether it will appeal Erickson’s ruling, proceed with a second sentencing trial or concede to a life sentence.

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Erickson was a U.S. District Court judge in Fargo when he first took on Rodriguez's case. He now sits on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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