By JIM SALTER and MICHAEL TARM Associated Press
U.S. prosecutors said Tuesday that they will no longer seek the death penalty for the Minnesota man convicted in the kidnapping and killing of college student Dru Sjodin in 2003 in a case that led to changes in sex offender registration laws.
U.S. Attorney Mac Schneider in North Dakota said he filed a notice with the court withdrawing his effort to seek the death penalty for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. — a move he said followed a directive from Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Sjodin, a Minnesota woman, was a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student when she was abducted from a Grand Forks, North Dakota, mall parking lot in November 2003. Rodriguez, a sex offender, was arrested the next month. Despite several massive searches, Sjodin’s body wasn’t found until the following April near Crookston, Minnesota.
“My thoughts today are with Dru Sjodin’s family, particularly her parents, Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin,” Schneider said in a news release. “They are genuinely good people and loving parents who in the wake of an unimaginable loss have worked closely with our office for nearly 20 years. We continue to wish them the greatest measure of peace possible.”
Rodgriquez was convicted in 2006 and was awaiting new sentencing after a judge overturned his original death sentence.
Eric Montroy, Rodriguez’s public defender, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment. A phone message left with Sjodin’s mother also was not immediately returned.
Sjodin’s death led to a dramatic shift in the way Minnesota handles sex offenders, with a drastic increase in the number who were committed indefinitely for treatment even after their prison sentences had run their course. Also, the national sex offender public registry, intended to give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders, was renamed for Sjodin.
The Justice Department has faced criticism from death penalty opponents for pursuing the death penalty despite President Joe’s Biden’s state opposition to capital punishment. In 2021, Garland announced a moratorium on federal executions and a review of execution processes. The Department of Justice won’t issue orders to execute anyone while the moratorium is in place, but the moratorium doesn’t stop the agency from pursuing new death sentences.
The Biden Justice Department has withdrawn permission to seek the death penalty in more than two dozen cases and the move in the Rodriguez case is a similar step. However, in most other cases, defendants either haven’t yet gone to trial or haven’t ever been sentenced.
There are 44 inmates on federal death row and Justice Department lawyers have generally fought all their efforts to have their death sentences thrown out.
In September 2021, then-U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson ruled that misleading testimony from the coroner, the failure of lawyers to outline the possibility of an insanity defense, and evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder had violated Rodriguez’s constitutional rights. Erickson ordered a new sentencing phase be conducted.
Erickson referred specifically to Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee’s interpretation of sexual assault evidence. The judge said McGee offered opinions during trial that were not in his autopsy reports, namely that semen was found during his examination of the body and that the seminal deposit had occurred within 24 to 36 hours of Sjodin’s death.
New evidence demonstrates that McGee was “guessing” and his opinions were not scientifically supported, wrote Erickson, who is now a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The federal death penalty wasn’t a high-profile issue until then-President Donald Trump resumed executions in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus. With 13 inmates put to death in his last months in office, Trump oversaw more federal executions than any president in more than 120 years.
The first capital case tried under Biden ended Monday with a split among jurors that means the life of an Islamic extremist who killed eight people in a New York City will be spared. Many were surprised that Biden’s Justice Department continued to pursue the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov — first authorized during Trump’s presidency — given Biden’s opposition to capital punishment.
In January, the Justice Department announced that it would not seek the death penalty for Patrick Crusius in a racist attack at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that left nearly two dozen people dead in 2019. Crusius has since pleaded guilty to federal hate crime and weapons charges.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Tarm reported from Chicago.