FARGO - College student Dru Sjodin was stabbed, bound, and her throat was slashed before she was left to die in a ditch, a prosecutor told jurors in opening statements of the first death penalty case in North Dakota in more than a century.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 53, of Crookston, Minn., is charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of the 22-year-old University of North Dakota student, who disappeared from a Grand Forks mall parking lot in 2003. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty.
The partially nude body of Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was found in April 2004, in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez was living with his mother.
Federal prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty if Rodriguez is convicted, making it the first capital punishment case in North Dakota in more than 100 years. Neither North Dakota nor Minnesota has a state death penalty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer told jurors Monday that Rodriguez put a plastic bag over Sjodin's head, stabbed and slashed her, "leaving her to die in a ditch" in rural Minnesota.
Reisenauer said Sjodin's hands had been bound behind her back and she was nude from the waist down, in a black and blue coat with a rope tied around her neck and remnants of the plastic bag. He said she had bruises on her arms, her right eye and her lower right cheek.
Sjodin died of suffocation, the wound to her neck, or possibly from exposure to elements, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his short opening statement, did not focus on guilt or innocence, but on jurisdiction. He said the case should be in state court, not in federal court, and that Sjodin died in Grand Forks and not in Minnesota.
"Despite all you've heard about this case, it's the wrong charge in the wrong court," Hoy said. Prosecutors, he said, cannot prove when or where she died, or the "precise cause of death."
Hoy said he believes Sjodin died "within a few minutes" in the Columbia Mall parking lot.
Prosecutors contend Rodriguez held Sjodin "for the purpose of sexually assaulting her." At a hearing in December, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said Sjodin was "in distress for several hours."
Reisenauer said blood in Rodriguez's car matched Sjodin's DNA, and hair on her coat matched Rodriguez's DNA. Fibers from her coat were found in his vehicle, Reisenauer said.
He said the government would present evidence to "piece together a puzzle." There were no witnesses to the crime, he said.
"You can use your own common sense, your own reasoning, your own life experiences to make this decision," Reisenauer told jurors.
Prosecutors called five witnesses on Monday afternoon, including Sjodin's roommate at the time she disappeared. Meg Flategraff said she last saw Sjodin on the morning of Nov. 22, 2003, when Sjodin gave her a ride to pick up her car. Flategraff called police later that night to report Sjodin missing.
Hoy asked Flategraff why Sjodin's former boyfriend, Adam Schultz, came to their apartment that night.
"I had been calling pretty much anyone I knew to see if they had heard from Dru," Flategraff said.
Asked by Hoy if Schultz looked through some of Sjodin's belongings, Flategraff said "he didn't go in there and ransack her room."
One of Sjodin's sorority sisters, Danielle Mark, testified she didn't notice any bruises on Sjodin's arms or face the day before she disappeared. Under questioning from Hoy, Mark said investigators first asked her about the bruises last month.
Sjodin's father, Allan, and her mother, Linda Walker, declined comment. They were joined by several family members in the courtroom.
Rodriguez's mother, Dolores, and his sister, Ileanna Noyes, were among a handful of people sitting in the row reserved for friends and family of the defendant.
A jury panel of eight men and eight women, including four alternates, was seated Monday morning to hear the case. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson warned them not to discuss it outside the courtroom. He also ordered them to stay in the courthouse during the day.
The trial will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, Monday through Thursday, Erickson said.
"This is the most important thing your country is going to ask you to do other than serve in the armed forces," Erickson told the jury.