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Large pool pared for Rodriguez jury

Court officials sent letters this spring to 1,500 people in hope of finding 16 individuals - 12 jurors and four alternates - willing to give Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. a fair trial.

Graphic: Deep pool

Court officials sent letters this spring to 1,500 people in hope of finding 16 individuals - 12 jurors and four alternates - willing to give Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. a fair trial.

Having 1,500 candidates sounds about right, said Mary Rose, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on jury selection.

"The official aim is to find a group of impartial citizens who can listen to the case with an open mind and are not bringing too much baggage with them," Rose said.

"That's a really hard task," she added. "They (officials) are often having to make snap judgments on the basis of very limited information."

Rodriguez, 53, of Crookston, Minn., faces a potential death sentence if federal court jurors find him guilty in the disappearance and murder of Dru Sjodin.


His trial in U.S. District Court in Fargo starts Thursday.

The initial list of 1,500 potential jurors was trimmed to 580 a few weeks ago.

Some of those cut were excused automatically.

Candidates for automatic exclusion include active-duty military personnel, members of fire and police departments and public officials in federal and state government, said Edward J. Klecker, clerk of U.S. District Court.

In addition, volunteer firefighters, members of the clergy and full-time students often are excused from duty.

The 580 potential jurors who made the initial cut were called to the courthouse to answer a second round of more detailed questions. The responses were provided to defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Klecker said both sides will have to agree on the names of at least 70 people who must show up for the start of trial this week.

That's when the real whittling begins in a process called voir dire, a Latin term for the detailed questioning that would-be jurors undergo as attorneys strive to uncover details about their lives and beliefs.


U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson will explain to jurors what is expected of them, and he's likely to ask some questions as well.

Then, attorneys from both sides will ask their own questions.

The defense and the prosecution typically get 20 peremptory challenges each, meaning they can dismiss that many potential jurors without having to give a reason.

In the Rodriguez case, Judge Erickson is giving the defense 32 peremptory challenges and the prosecution 22.

"The job of jury selection is to try and figure out whose experiences and opinions make it too difficult for them to hear the case with an open mind," Rose said, adding that jury selection is not an easy task.

"Lawyers," she said, "bring the added thing of they want to find people who are more likely to favor their side."

A study done in the 1970s allowed dismissed jurors to shadow trials and deliberate on verdicts as if they were real jurors.

The findings suggested attorneys did a poor job of ferreting out jurors who would be unsympathetic to their side, Rose said, stressing that the job of jury selection is not about picking favorable jurors as much as it is about excluding people who can't be fair at all.


Klecker said it may take two weeks to pick a jury once the trial begins, and the proceedings could last two months or more.

Just preparing for the trial has put a strain on staff, Klecker said.

"We can't really bring in people from the outside because what we do is fairly technical.

"Right now, we're coping," he said.

Long trials are hard on juries, too, Rose said, though she added the demands placed on jurors don't seem to effect the diligence they bring to the job.

"All the evidence suggests jurors take this task very seriously," she said. "They work together to overcome the stress."

In 2003, Fay Kopp spent nearly two weeks listening to testimony in a federal trial in Bismarck.

Afterward, she and fellow jurors found Michael Gianakos guilty in the 1997 kidnapping and killing of Anne Marie Camp.


Gianakos was subsequently sentenced to life.

"I learned a lot," Kopp said. "In some respects, it (serving on a jury) can be a very positive experience. You're doing your civic duty.

"On the flip side, it does take a toll on family and work."

Jury duty was as much as she expected it would be.

The most surprising thing, she said, was how abruptly she went from her normal life, to being immersed in a complex legal case.

"I think it (the experience) certainly stays with you for a lifetime," she said.

"The thought crossed my mind - when all was said and done - is this the best way of doing things?

"I don't think there's anything that's perfect," Kopp said. "But I do think it (the jury system) is fair and the individuals are doing their very best to make the fairest possible judgment based on information they received in the courtroom."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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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