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Federal prosecutors to appeal ruling that overturned Alfonso Rodriguez death sentence

The notice doesn't state the justification for appealing the ruling regarding the 2003 kidnapping and murder of UND student Dru Sjodin.

Alfonso Rodriguez-file photo
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. listens at his bail hearing on a kidnapping charge in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks on Dec. 4, 2003.
Dave Wallis / The Forum
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FARGO — Federal prosecutors will appeal a ruling that overturned Alfonso Rodriguez’s death sentence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota filed a notice to appeal Thursday, March 3, in the case against the 69-year-old on death row. Rodriguez was found guilty in 2006 of kidnapping and killing 22-year-old Dru Sjodin.

A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2007, but Eight Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson reversed the sentence. The judge, who also oversaw Rodriguez’s trial as a U.S. District judge, ruled the defendant’s trial attorneys were ineffective during the sentencing portion.

Prosecutors argued Rodriguez took Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student, from Columbia Mall in Grand Forks in November 2004, sexually assaulted her, marched her down a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, and killed her. Sjodin’s body was found in the ravine in April 2004.

A Ramsey County medical examiner said Sjodin died from a slash to her throat. Defense experts contradicted that finding by saying she could have died from strangulation, while an autopsy said the cause of death was a wound to the neck, suffocation or exposure.

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The medical examiner’s findings were based on speculation, Erickson said in his 232-page opinion filed in September. The defense should have done more to challenge that testimony, the judge wrote.

Alfonso Rodriguez
Alfonso Rodriguez

Erickson also determined a mental health evaluation could have missed a possible insanity defense and evidence that Rodriguez suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rodriguez’s appeal attorneys asked Erickson in October to alter his findings that an intellectual disability shouldn’t play a role in overturning the death penalty. Erickson struck down that challenge in January.

Erickson ordered another sentencing phase for Rodriguez. Federal prosecutors had the choice of proceeding with a second sentencing trial, allowing Rodriguez to serve a life sentence without further hearings or appealing Erickson’s ruling.

The notice does not give a justification for appealing. That is expected to come at a later date.

It’s unclear how long the appeal process will take. If Rodriguez receives capital punishment again, the Biden Administration has put a moratorium on death sentences being carried out.

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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