Family and friends struggled to explain the horrors of a crime so heinous it defied description more than three years later.

Convicted killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. offered no outward emotion or explanation to the kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin.

Instead, voices wavered Thursday as her loved ones and the judge sought to describe their emotional struggle with Rodriguez's brutal murder of the 22-year-old student from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"If it were possible, I would gladly lay down my own life to have had this whole ordeal avoided, to have Dru Sjodin back with her family, to have never heard of you, Mr. Rodriguez," U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told the 53-year-old sex offender from Crookston, Minn., before formally sentencing him to die by lethal injection.

"The pain that has been wrought by this senseless act is so unimaginable, and the magnitude and the breadth of the impact of this crime is such that it staggers the intellect," the judge said.

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Eighteen of Dru Sjodin's loved ones - family, teachers and friends - offered glimpses into how their lives changed when Sjodin disappeared Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks mall parking lot.

Her father, Allan Sjodin, said he refuses to speak the defendant's name.

"This crime was not committed on Dru alone," Allan Sjodin said.

"Everyone who loved her was affected by this cruel, horrible crime."

One friend offered why Dru Sjodin's disappearance may be woven into the region's fabric forever.

"People knew her as a face of their own daughter, sister and friend," said Melissa Mortinson, comparing her to a rare diamond.

"Dru is precious - precious to me and precious to so many others."

Rodriguez, wearing jeans and an unzipped blue jacket, declined to speak when given the chance. His family also chose not to speak at Thursday's hearing, which capped the end to a 12-week trial last summer.

The trial marked the first-ever federal death penalty case in North Dakota, which doesn't allow capital punishment under state law. Thursday's hearing was the first time since 1914 that any judge in the state ordered a defendant's death.

Federal prosecutors pursued the death penalty on the premise Rodriguez kidnapped Dru Sjodin and crossed state lines. A searcher found her half-nude, bruised, raped, stabbed and abandoned in a rural ravine near Crookston nearly five months later.

Benchmark justice

"Today is the most difficult day of my life," said Erickson, who earlier denied a request by Rodriguez for a new trial.

"I find this harder to face than the day my mother died too young, the day my father died, or the days that my wife and I lost our unborn children."

The judge explained how events and ethnic cultures led lawmakers in North Dakota and in Minnesota to abolish the death penalty.

"And, yet, against this, there are crimes that cry out to heaven for retribution," Erickson said. "Crimes so heinous that it seems that imprisonment is insufficient."

The crime fueled talk to pass new death penalty laws and reflections about the pain and sadness it brought, he said.

"The people who will go to their graves with this crime on their minds is legion," said Erickson, who also ordered Rodriguez to pay $42,875 in restitution.

One of Rodriguez's lawyers, Richard Ney, filed an appeal and requested a delay to the execution, which would be carried out in Terre Haute, Ind.

Ney, an adamant death penalty opponent, said the jury's sentence devastates the Rodriguez family and fails to bring peace to the Sjodins.

"I know that sentencing Alfonso to death here will not make this community any safer," said Ney, an experienced death penalty defense lawyer. "It will not deter the actions of anyone else in the future."

He said imposing the death penalty doesn't honor God nor does it serve as an answer to violence.

"I know in my heart that this sentence does not reflect the heart of this community," Ney said. "It reflects, I think, the fear of this community."

A new road forged

"My life to this point has been divided into chapters - my life before and after Dru," said Dani Mark, a friend and Gamma Phi Beta sorority sister. "She made me feel special."

She described Dru Sjodin's disappearance as a movie with no happy ending "no matter how long we wait for it."

Another friend said her life can serve as an inspiration to those who knew her.

"Drusey wanted to make a difference in the lives of others and the world around her," Katie Anderson said. "Let's carry out Dru's way of life and continue to make a difference where she started."

Five jurors sitting together Thursday in the courtroom heard others talk about Dru Sjodin in words they didn't hear before signing Rodriguez's death warrant.

"I was the only minority and I thought it was my extra duty" to be here, said Bertha Pickell, a juror from Oakes, N.D. She and others declined further comment.

The journey has been difficult for Dru Sjodin's parents.

Her mother, Linda Walker, described how her daughter's "shortened road of life" brought pain, confusion and constant sorrow to family and friends.

"I'm here to honor her and represent her and all victims of violent crimes who either have been silenced or not been heard," Walker said. "My heart has been torn into a million little pieces."

Dru Sjodin's father, Allan Sjodin, said the death sentence ordered for Rodriguez doesn't end the grief.

"Closure isn't a word in my vocabulary," he said.

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