Prosecutors say Rodriguez’s lawyers did good work in student death case

Published 10:47 am Thursday, November 14, 2013

FARGO, N.D. — Federal prosecutors say in court documents released Wednesday that a man sentenced to death for killing a University of North Dakota student nearly 10 years ago knew what he was doing and his final appeal should be dismissed without a hearing.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who sits on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., filed a habeas corpus appeal in October 2011 that claims, among other things, that he is mentally disabled and his lawyers did a poor job of defending him. The appeal asks that the sentence be thrown out or amended.

Rodriguez, 60, of Crookston, was convicted in 2006 of kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes. Authorities said Sjodin, who went missing from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall on Thanksgiving weekend of 2003, was raped, beaten and stabbed.

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The 417-page document filed Wednesday by prosecutors said defense attorneys for Rodriguez were “zealous advocates” for their client who grilled witnesses and sought to exclude numerous pieces of evidence. The verdict “speaks to the strength of the prosecution’s case, rather than a failure of the defense team,” the government said.

Rodriguez said his lawyers made a mistake by failing to seek an insanity defense, “yet none of the experts who evaluated Rodriguez recommended any further testing,” prosecutors said.

Two medical experts who interview Rodriguez in June concluded he is not mentally disabled and didn’t kill Sjodin by accident, as appeals claim.

“Rodriguez has now spoken and made it clear that that reason he disposed of Ms. Sjodin in the location at which she was found was to render discovery difficult, and that he did so after deliberately traveling on low-trafficked roads that were unlikely to attract police officers on patrol,” the government says. “These are qualities of an organized, planned assault.”

The U.S. attorneys say prosecutors made a strategic decision to limit testimony by mental health experts that would have allowed a jury to learn how Rodriguez seized Sjodin in her car, how Sjodin begged Rodriguez to let her go, and how Sjodin was conscious and tied up when Rodriguez left the parking lot. It also would have included “Rodriguez’s own representations that the victim was in such frantic terror that she was kicking the rear seat window, attempting to break that window to call attention to a passerby to save her,” the government said.

The government document notes Rodriguez’s attorneys, Richard Ney and Robert Hoy, are experienced and highly regarded lawyers. Ney was specifically asked to take the case by the court because of his experience with about a dozen death penalty cases.

“At trial, the defense team acquitted itself with equanimity and vigor,” the government’s document says.