What’s next in Dru Sjodin death penalty case
FARGO (AP) — North Dakota’s first and only federal capital punishment case is on hold after a federal judge this month threw out the death sentence given to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in 2006 in the death of college student Dru Sjodin.
Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over the original case before he was promoted to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled on Sept. 3 that misleading testimony from the medical examiner about sexual assault and the failure of defense attorneys to outline a possible insanity defense warranted a new sentencing phase.
Rodriguez, a convicted sex offender from Crookston, Minnesota, kidnapped the 22-year-old Sjodin from a shopping mall in Grand Forks in 2003 and drove her to Minnesota, where he killed her and left her body in a field near Crookston. Sjodin’s disappearance sparked days of massive searches, reshaped the way Minnesota handled sex offenders and led to the national sex offender registry being renamed for Sjodin.
Rodriguez remains locked up at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Here’s a look at next steps in the case:
WHAT WILL THE
GOVERNMENT DO NEXT?
It’s up to President Joe Biden’s administration. Prosecutors face a deadline, likely 60 days, to file a notice of appeal. But they’ll need permission from the administration, said former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, the lead prosecutor in the Sjodin case.
A successful appeal would reinstate Rodriguez’s death penalty. A loss would require the Department of Justice to decide if it wants to go through the sentencing phase of the trial again to try to secure another death sentence.
Rodriguez’s conviction wasn’t overturned, so he would serve life in prison without parole if the government doesn’t pursue a death sentence.
“The only question is, will the Biden Justice Department seek and participate in another hearing on the sentence in the case,” Wrigley said. “That is squarely their decision.”
The case was jointly investigated by the U.S. attorneys’ offices for North Dakota and Minnesota. Tom Heffelfinger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota at the time, declined to discuss Erickson’s ruling but said he hopes the Justice Department appeals it.
“I believe the case warranted the death penalty,” Heffelfinger said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have signed off on the request for it.”
SO WILL IT?
The Justice Department under Biden halted federal executions this summer after the Trump administration made frequent use of them, putting to death 13 inmates during a six-month period. Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed the moratorium on July 1 pending a review of the department’s policies and procedures.
Biden has said he opposes the death penalty and his team vowed that he would take action to stop its use while in office. However, he hasn’t pushed the issue and his administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the original death sentence given to the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.