Dru Sjodin’s killer wants decision on intellectual disability to prevent execution
The request seeks to change Judge Ralph Erickson’s order to punish 68-year-old Alfonso Rodriguez. Forensic pathologist gave “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate” information about Sjodin’s cause of death, and post-traumatic stress disorder could have made Rodriguez lose his sense of reality, the Court judge ruled. Eighth Circuit appeal on behalf of the US District. North Dakota court in early September.
Rodriguez’s defense attorneys were found to be ineffective for failing to challenge the medical examiner’s opinion and for failing to explore Rodriguez’s PTSD, Erickson said as grounds for overturning the death sentence. However, the judge said, Philadelphia-based appeals lawyers for Rodriguez have not proven that his intellectual disability can be used to avoid capital punishment.
In an October 1 filing, Rodriguez’s lawyers asked Erickson to reconsider his decision on intellectual disability, which could strengthen their case if prosecutors try again to seek the death penalty.
University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and killed in 2003. (Forum News Service file photo)
A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2007 for the kidnapping of Sjodin, 22, on November 22, 2003, at the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Prosecutors said he raped Sjodin, took her to a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, and killed her.
His body was found on April 17, 2004, in the ravine. Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death in 2006.
The guilty verdict still stands, but prosecutors must decide whether to appeal Erickson’s decision, seek the death penalty in a new sentencing hearing, or agree to let Rodriguez serve the rest of his life in prison. They should consult with the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, before proceeding.
Seeking the death penalty could be an uphill battle, given that President Joe Biden has voiced his opposition to the death penalty. The justice ministry has suspended executions, although it still calls for the death penalty in some high-profile cases.
Prosecutors explained how Sjodin died – an autopsy report indicated the cause of death could have been a neck injury, suffocation, strangulation or exposure to cold – does not matter. Rodriguez’s actions, lack of cooperation with investigators and refusal to take responsibility, among other reasons, deserved the death penalty.
Former US Attorney Drew Wrigley also said Rodriguez’s test team waived the right to use a PTSD defense.
Rodriguez’s appeal attorneys argue that the claims in the October 1 case fall under the United States Supreme Court’s decision Atkins v. Virginia, who claims to execute people diagnosed with intellectual disability is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. A person must have deficits in intellectual function and adaptive behavior, as well as the onset of the disease before the age of 18.
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Rodriguez met the first two criteria but didn’t prove he was disabled until he was 18, Erickson said.
Rodriguez was exposed to neurotoxic pesticides before he was born and as a child, and he started drinking alcohol and using drugs from the age of 7, according to his lawyers.
Both of these things contributed to his intellectual disability, Rodriguez’s team argued. He has a history of brain trauma, symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a family history that includes dementia, according to court documents.
Public defenders also noted that the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities has changed its criteria for a developmental disability to occur. Instead of 18 years, the developmental period in a human can last up to 22 years, according to definitions released in January.
Prosecutors have previously argued Rodriguez did not meet the standards of an Atkins claim. He has passed a general education development test, or GED, and has demonstrated intelligence through reasoning, problem-solving, planning, reading and other skills, Wrigley said. Lawyers for the trial also did not pursue Atkins’ strategy, Wrigley added.
Erickson noted that Rodriguez claimed to have read over 900 books.
A response from the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office is expected Oct. 15, but prosecutors on Friday asked in a court filing to extend the deadline to Oct. 29.
Public defender Joseph Luby, who drafted the intellectual disability application, did not return messages left by The Forum.