As Biden sends mixed signals on death penalty, Alfonso Rodriguez's fate unclear

After a judge tossed the death sentence of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., his lawyer asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to withdraw authorization for prosecutors to keep seeking the death penalty.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. sits flanked by his defense attorneys Richard Ney, left, and Robert Hoy in this courtroom sketch from the early days of Rodriguez's federal trial in 2006 in Fargo.
Trygve Olson/The Forum

FARGO — A lawyer for convicted killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who was sentenced to death in 2007, has voiced optimism that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will nix the death penalty option in the case, given that Garland's done so in 21 out of 22 similar requests from defense attorneys.

However, a death penalty expert says it remains unclear whether the death penalty option will be withdrawn in the case involving the murder of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin nearly two decades ago.

"I don't think there's any way to tell," said Robert Dunham, who heads the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. , referring to the case of 69-year-old Rodriguez, whose death sentence for the kidnapping and killing of 22-year-old Sjodin in 2003 was overturned by a judge in 2021.

In the wake of that ruling, Rodriguez's defense attorney, Victor Abreu, asked Garland to withdraw authorization for prosecutors to continue seeking the death penalty and both sides are now waiting for Garland to make a decision.

Dru Sjodin 1-29-19
Dru Sjodin's homecoming queen crown from Pequot Lakes, Minn., from 1999 rests among a bouquet of flowers atop her casket before her funeral.
Eric Hylden / Forum News Service.

Based on the timing of past decisions, a ruling regarding Rodriguez's case is anticipated some time this spring or early summer, but there is no prescribed deadline for when such a ruling must be made.


Mac Schneider, who recently became the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, said he is not making any predictions on what Garland's decision will be. Schneider said his office will be prepared to move forward with re-sentencing Rodriguez if the death penalty is continued to be authorized in the case.

"As for this office, we intend to proceed with another penalty phase, unless the attorney general tells us otherwise," Schneider said.

If the death penalty is not reauthorized, there will be no further proceedings regarding a death sentence, but there will likely be a proceeding to formally sentence Rodriguez to life in prison, Schneider said. Rodriguez is being held at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Mixed messages

Dunham, the death penalty expert, said the fact Garland has approved the withdrawal of death penalty authorization in nearly two dozen cases may not be an indicator of what he will do in the Rodriguez case, because many of the other cases do not involve someone who has already been convicted.

President Joe Biden, who appointed Garland, has said in the past he wanted to end the death penalty, but he has also said he doesn't want the White House to interfere with individual decisions being made by the Justice Department, said Dunham, who added it appears Garland is making decisions regarding death penalty authorization on a case-by-case basis.

Under Biden's tenure, the Justice Department paused all federal executions in July of 2021 to review policies and procedures, but the agency has also continued to support existing death penalties in certain instances.

Those cases include one in Boston, where the Justice Department is pushing judges to uphold the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man convicted in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Dunham said the Biden administration's apparent ambiguity when it comes to capital punishment is magnified by the fact the White House has not come out with a policy specifically prohibiting the pursuit of the death penalty as an option.


Dunham acknowledged that avoiding politicization of Justice Department decisions is a good thing, but he added that if Biden did set a policy to end the death penalty in federal cases, it wouldn't jeopardize Justice Department independence.

"There is a huge difference between setting a policy that applies to an entire class of cases and interfering in individual cases," Dunham said.

According to Dunham, the Biden administration's largely inactive approach to the death penalty makes it likely that a future president will resume federal executions, similar to what occurred during former President Donald Trump's tenure.

Federal executions resumed in 2020 following a 17-year hiatus. With 13 executions being carried out, the last six months of the Trump administration oversaw more federal executions than any president in more than 120 years.

Dunham said if the Biden administration's inaction continues in regards to the death penalty, it will eventually result in executions happening at some point.

"The executions may occur under a different president, but they will be Biden administration executions," Dunham said.

A grisly crime

Sjodin was abducted from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks in November of 2003.

At the time, Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and worked at the mall.


Prosecutors said Rodriguez sexually assaulted Sjodin, took her to a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, and slashed her throat before leaving her for dead.

Her body was found on April 17, 2004.

U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson, who oversaw Rodriguez's 2006 trial when he was a U.S. District Court judge, issued the 2021 ruling overturning a jury decision that Rodriguez be sentenced to death.

Erickson said defense attorneys during the sentencing portion of Rodriguez's trial should have done more to challenge a medical examiner’s testimony that said Sjodin died from the slash to her neck.

Experts hired by the defense said Sjodin could have died from strangulation, and an autopsy report cited suffocation or exposure as possible causes of death, along with the neck slash.

Erickson also noted that a mental health evaluation may have missed a possible insanity defense and evidence that Rodriguez has severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prosecutors filed an appeal of Erickson’s ruling, but later withdrew it.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

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