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Hearing maps out Rodriguez trial

Attorneys debating the legal parameters of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s federal trial for the kidnapping resulting in Dru Sjodin's death gave an indication Friday what lies ahead.

Attorneys debating the legal parameters of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s federal trial for the kidnapping resulting in Dru Sjodin's death gave an indication Friday what lies ahead.

Arguments during the three-hour hearing prompted a 30-minute recess to U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson's chambers and a private meeting between the judge and attorneys huddled next to his bench.

The 53-year-old twice-convicted sex offender's trial starts July 6 in Fargo, but attorneys are leaving little to chance in mapping out how and what evidence can be presented to jurors.

Friday's hearing allowed Rodriguez's attorneys, Richard Ney and Robert Hoy, and federal prosecutors, mainly U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, the chance to debate motions filed in the case.

Ney of Wichita, Kan., has been appointed to assist in the case because the government wants Rodriguez to face the death penalty if he's convicted.


Rodriguez, of Crookston, Minn., faces the charge after Sjodin disappeared from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot in November 2003. Her body was later found near his hometown.

Nearly six months before Sjodin's disappearance, Rodriguez left a Minnesota prison after serving 23 years for attempted kidnapping. He also served time for two rape-related charges in the 1970s.

Prosecutors say Rodriguez killed Sjodin in "an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner" involving torture and serious physical abuse.

The defense team of Ney and Hoy, a Fargo attorney, wants the judge to bar the death penalty on the grounds that capital punishment is arbitrary and discriminatory.

"We're talking about how the attorney general makes decisions," Ney said. "That's the problem. ... It's almost at a whim."

Ney said the judge should compel the Justice Department to explain how it determines who faces capital punishment. The defense says minority-group defendants have disproportionately faced the death penalty, a claim they say is backed up by Justice Department studies in 2000 and 2004.

Wrigley said the defense must show discrimination in the government's decision and intentions.

"When we make a decision (to not pursue the death penalty), we call it mercy," he said. "I'm not sure it's not more candid than that. Sometimes it's pure chilling practicality."


Then Wrigley disputed the defense's assertion that prosecutors offered Rodriguez a plea agreement to life imprisonment and pulled it off the table.


"The insinuation they make is patently false," said Wrigley.

The prosecutor said he chose the words carefully and thought the parties should meet privately with the judge about the defense's claim Rodriguez received a plea offer.

"I do object to a proceeding where I'm called a liar," Ney said.

"I didn't say that," Wrigley responded.

"You said it was patently false," Ney shot back.

"I did say that," Wrigley quipped.


"It's the same thing," Ney said. "I want to be able to defend myself in public."

Erickson interrupted the exchange by saying advocates can sometimes filter the facts to support their opinions.

But Wrigley said Ney's portrayal of discussions between prosecutors and Rodriguez's attorneys, including David Dusek of Grand Forks, was a "gross mischaracterization."

"I appreciate the repeated accusation," Ney said.

Erickson then ordered the attorneys into his chambers. Upon returning to the courtroom, the judge said he'd rule later on the defense's motion to keep Rodriguez from facing the death penalty because eligibility is determined in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

In other motions, Rodriguez's attorneys want the judge to split the penalty phase of the case into two parts to address mitigating factors and whether he is eligible to face capital punishment. They also want to keep prosecutors from using Rodriguez's sex offender treatment records during the penalty phase.

Ney said prosecutors' claims Rodriguez refused treatment, and thus remained in prison longer, are false. Treatment officials recommended Rodriguez undergo treatment during his last year in prison, Ney said.

However, Wrigley said records show otherwise.


"He (Rodriguez) left knowing he still had those drives to re-offend and victimize women," Wrigley said.

Erickson also took those motions under advisement.

A fourth motion debated Friday centered on whether prosecutors can give the defense copies of news releases issued to the media.

Erickson questioned Wrigley why he would resist handing them over.

The federal prosecutor said the defense hadn't proven how the releases are relevant to the case.

Erickson agreed to take the motion under consideration, but Wrigley turned over four releases to Ney anyway.

Ney said he'd then make a continuing motion to force prosecutors to provide copies of future releases.

Wrigley said he'd comply and Ney asked for confirmation again.


"You betcha," Wrigley said.

The exchange appeared to spark Erickson's ire and the judge told the attorneys to approach the bench for another private discussion.

Erickson won't rule on the motion because Wrigley agreed to provide information to Rodriguez's attorneys.

Sjodin's parents, Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin, sat through the hearing.

"We want to get the case tried and let justice be served," Allan Sjodin said. "We all have an obligation to do it right."

While the process leading up to the trial has been difficult, the family draws on each other for strength and support, Walker said.

A hearing on the defense's motion to suppress evidence compiled by the government is set for Dec. 14.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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