Death penalty tossed in 2003 abduction, murder of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin

FARGO, N.D. — Dru Sjodin would have been 40 years old later this month.

As the slain University of North Dakota student’s family and friends prepare for that bittersweet day, a federal judge on Friday overturned the death sentence of the sexual predator convicted of abducting and murdering Sjodin more than 17 years ago.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.’s conviction in Sjodin’s brutal Nov. 22, 2003, killing was upheld. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson ruled, however, that the now-68-year-old Rodriguez is entitled to a new sentencing hearing in the case.

Former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who prosecuted Rodriguez, told The Associated Press that he’s spoken to Sjodin’s parents, Allan Sjodin and Linda Walker, about the development.

Their reaction “was exactly what you would imagine,” Wrigley said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

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The Sjodin case, which drew national headlines as hundreds of volunteers searched for the missing college student, helped change the way sex offenders like Rodriguez are handled in North Dakota and in Minnesota, where Sjodin’s body was later found.

The national sex offender registry, established in 2005, was renamed for Sjodin in 2006.

Rodriguez was convicted in 2006 of kidnapping Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, from the parking lot of Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Sjodin worked at Victoria’s Secret while studying visual art at UND.

Sjodin had bought a new purse after her shift that afternoon and was on the phone with her boyfriend, Chris Lang, as she walked to her car.

“Chris heard Dru say, ‘OK, OK,’ and then the call abruptly ended,” Erickson wrote in a case summary.

Lang told ABC News in 2003 that he did not initially realize he had heard the beginning of Sjodin’s abduction. He said he assumed that the call had simply been dropped.

Sjodin was never seen alive again.

Hours later, at 7:42 p.m., Lang received another call from Sjodin’s phone, but heard only static and the sound of someone pressing the phone’s buttons.

Sjodin’s body was found the following April about 30 miles away, near Crookston, Minnesota, after the spring sunshine had begun to thaw the snowy ditch where she had been dumped.

Rodriguez, a registered sex offender released from prison six months before the murder, lived in Crookston with his mother at the time of Sjodin’s abduction. Prior to his release, he had served 23 years in prison for multiple rapes and an attempted rape.

He was classified as a Level 3 sex offender, the most dangerous category, court records show. Rodriguez, who had expressed anxiety and fear of living back in society, was released anyway, even after his own family expressed concern to Minnesota Department of Corrections officials.

The final phone call from Sjodin’s phone was made from a rest stop near Crookston, according to an affidavit in the murder case. Sjodin’s black loafer was later found under a bridge leading into the small city.

Sjodin’s autopsy determined she had been beaten, stabbed and possibly suffocated to death. Her throat was also cut, and a rope and the remnants of a plastic grocery bag remained around her neck when her body was found.

Search for a killer

Rodriguez became a suspect four days into the investigation after police received a tip stating he’d been in Grand Forks the day Sjodin vanished, according to media reports. He admitted to detectives that he’d been at the mall where she worked, but said he was watching a movie at the mall’s theater.

There was just one problem: The film he said he’d seen was not playing at any theater in Grand Forks at the time, CNN reported.

The former convict allowed investigators to search his 2002 Mercury Sable, where they found a knife hidden in the trunk. They also found blood on a rear window and on the car’s seats.

“The blood did come back (and) it was a DNA match with Dru from the DNA taken from Dru’s toothbrush,” then-Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill told CNN in 2003.

Hair matching Rodriguez’s DNA was found on Sjodin’s coat.

The knife used to kill Sjodin matched a knife sheath found near Sjodin’s car, which was parked outside J.C. Penney at the mall. The affidavit, which the news network obtained, stated that the knife sheath was traced to the only local hardware store that sold it.

The sheath was sold as a pair with a folding knife — the same knife found hidden in Rodriguez’s trunk, the court records showed.

Because Rodriguez had taken Sjodin across state lines before killing her, he was charged in federal court. The move from state court, along with the fact that Sjodin was slain during an abduction, allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty, which had been previously banned in North Dakota and Minnesota courts.

Rodriguez’s case was the first and only federal death penalty case in North Dakota history. His was also the first death sentence handed down in the state in close to 100 years.

Erickson told Rodriguez during his 2007 sentencing that the killer’s “senseless and horrendous” actions had forced the judge and jurors to make a difficult decision.

“This is the first time since 1914 that any judge has been confronted with a death penalty sentence in North Dakota or Minnesota,” Erickson said, according to The New York Times.

Nick Chase, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota, told The Associated Press that federal prosecutors are weighing their options following the judge’s decision to overturn that sentence.

‘Nothing more than rank speculation’

In Friday’s ruling, Erickson cited “unsupported, misleading and inaccurate” trial testimony from a medical examiner as a factor in his decision to overturn Rodriguez’s sentence. He also cited the failure of defense lawyers to properly explore Rodriguez’s mental health.

“Rodriguez’s trial counsel directed their own mental health experts to not discuss the circumstances of the crime with Rodriguez,” Erickson’s ruling states. “This limitation led to a deficient investigation into Rodriguez’s mental health conditions, both in general and at the time of the commission of the crime.”

Limiting their client’s mental health evaluation may have cost him a valid defense based on his psychiatric history, the judge found.

“An adequate investigation would have exposed a possible insanity defense, and, at a minimum, information indicating that Rodriguez suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that he sometimes has dissociative experiences,” he wrote.

Rodriguez’s appeal also argued that Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee offered an opinion, not fact, when he testified that evidence showed Rodriguez had raped Sjodin in the hours after he snatched her from the mall parking lot.

McGee’s testimony appeared to contradict his own report from Sjodin’s autopsy, which made no mention of semen found on or near her body.

Erickson agreed, writing that unrefuted evidence uncovered since the trial indicates there was no concrete evidence of sexual assault.

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“The government’s theory that Rodriguez raped Sjodin because semen was detected in lab testing was based on nothing more than rank speculation,” Erickson wrote. “Speculative expert opinions are inadmissible.”

“At most, the evidence would allow the government (and the jury) to draw an inference based on non-scientific evidence, such as the remote location where Sjodin’s body was found, missing and disheveled or torn clothing, and bound hands.”

Erickson wrote that even without the presence of semen, the circumstances in which Sjodin’s body was found — naked from the waist down with her hands bound behind her back — were indicative of a sexually-motivated offense. Rodriguez’s extensive history of sex crimes could also lead a reasonable juror to conclude that Sjodin was killed during an attempted or completed sexual assault.

“Few trials are perfect. Admittedly, even fewer trials are riddled with error because expert testimony is later proven to be so unreliable that, had all the circumstances been known, it would have been inadmissible,” Erickson wrote. “But these post-conviction relief proceedings have uncovered credible evidence demonstrating that in the trial of this case, the truth was obscured.”

Read U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson’s ruling below.

Rodriguez, whose childhood was heavily marred by sexual and physical abuse, poverty and mental impairment, committed his first sexual assault when he was 21. It was far from his last.

“Since age 18, Rodriguez has been incarcerated for all but approximately three and a half years of his life,” the ruling states.

The judge wrote that there was “no genuine dispute” that Rodriguez kidnapped and murdered Sjodin. Prosecutors at trial argued that the case was about the killer’s “intentional and deliberate choices.”

The lack of evidence introducing Rodriguez’s PTSD into his defense made that argument impossible to dispute.

“If the jury heard evidence about the severity of Rodriguez’s mental health condition, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance and voted to impose a life sentence, rather than a death sentence,” Erickson determined.

McGee’s questionable testimony about the cause and circumstances of Sjodin’s death further hindered the case.

“The circumstances surrounding Sjodin’s death were instrumental in advancing the government’s arguments for why this case is unlike other murders such that a death sentence was the only just and appropriate punishment,” the judge wrote. “When the government failed to produce a single witness to support McGee’s trial opinions during the course of these post-conviction proceedings, and not even McGee himself attempted to support his trial opinions, there can be only one reasonable conclusion: the jury did not hear the truth.”

Eric Montroy, Rodriguez’s public defender, did not return a call seeking comment, the AP reported.