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Conflicting images emerge of man convicted of 2003 kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin

Dru Sjodin 1-29-19
Dru's Homecoming queen crown from 1999 rests among a bouquet of flowers atop her casket in the Grand View Lodge before her funeral. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service
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FARGO — Conflicting images emerged Tuesday, Jan. 29, of the man convicted of kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin in 2003, with some reports painting him as a broken figure from a very early age and others reflecting a picture of a mostly normal upbringing.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 65, was sentenced to death after he was convicted in federal court in Fargo in 2006 of kidnapping and killing Sjodin, who was 22 when she was abducted outside a mall in Grand Forks. Her body was found near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived.

Rodriguez has been on death row since his conviction as defense attorneys have sought to have his conviction and sentence overturned.

His lawyers contend Rodriguez is intellectually disabled and therefore cannot be executed.

A hearing on that issue began Monday in federal court in Fargo and it continued Tuesday with testimony from Ingrid Christiansen, who was part of the defense team during Rodriguez's trial.

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Christiansen researched the defendant's background to document significant moments in their lives.

"The facts of his life affect his behavior," Christiansen told Judge Ralph Erickson, who is presiding over the hearing and who was the judge during Rodriguez's trial.

Christiansen described a rough beginning for Rodriguez, whose parents worked for many years as migrant farm laborers and, as Christiansen described it, worked very hard for very little compensation.

As a newborn, Rodriguez could not tolerate his mother's milk and at the suggestion of a health clinic the suffering infant was placed on a diet of rice water during his first few months; an approach that came close to starving him to death, according to Christiansen.

She said after his mother sought help, a doctor shifted the infant to baby formula and Rodriguez survived, though his height never exceeded about 5 feet, 4 inches.

Christiansen said Rodriguez's father never learned to read English and his mother taught herself to read, though she never went past fifth grade in school.

Rodriguez, who lived much of his life at Crookston, was a poor student, according to Christiansen, who added that he did not start walking until he was about 2 and didn't learn to read until he was 9.

She said at the time of Rodriguez's trial, the defense team did not opt for a defense based on limited mental capacity because a mental health professional put his IQ score in the high 80s.

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At the time, the accepted threshold for intellectual disability was an IQ of around 70, according to testimony from the hearing Monday.

Defense witnesses said the latest criteria for deciphering intellectual disability is far broader than the results of an IQ test and include looking at how an individual with deficits is able to adapt.

Christiansen said her recent review of the background information she gathered for the trial left her shocked at the number of "red flags" from Rodriguez's life that she now sees as clear risk factors for intellectual disability.

"It seems so obvious to me now," she said.

Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer asked Christiansen about interviews she conducted with Rodriguez as well as his family and friends.

Early in her testimony Tuesday, Christiansen described Rodriguez as someone who as an adult had difficulty knowing how to feed himself and manage independent living.

Under questioning by Reisenauer, however, Christiansen talked about an interview with a friend of the Rodriguez family who stated Rodriguez baked her a casserole for her birthday. The family friend also said Rodriguez cooked a lot.

Some information arising from this week's hearing indicated Rodriguez was frequently bullied as a child — including one incident in which a group of children reportedly pulled down his pants and laughed at him.

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In interviews, however, some childhood friends described Rodriguez as being liked by many and as someone who always dressed well.

Reisenauer asked Christiansen about interviews she did with Rodriguez, including times when he admitted to sexual assaults committed prior to Sjodin's murder.

"Are you aware that Mr. Rodriguez has admitted to this offense?" Reisenauer asked Christiansen, referring to Sjodin's kidnapping and death.

Christiansen said he never made such an admission to her.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

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.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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