U.S. prosecutors said Tuesday that they will no longer seek the death penalty for a Minnesota man already on death row but awaiting resentencing for the kidnapping and killing of college student Dru Sjodin in 2003 — 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.
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Rodriguez was convicted in 2006 and was awaiting new sentencing after a judge overturned his original death sentence.
Schneider, in an interview, said he had no choice but to stop seeking the death penalty after he was “straightforwardly directed by the attorney general” to do so.
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.
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who led the trial team while he served as U.S. attorney, decried the “legal wrangling” that occurred after the federal jury’s verdict and sentence had been upheld.
“This result is a grave affront to justice and to the hearts and souls of all who loved and cared for Dru Sjodin,” Wrigley said in a statement. “They have our prayers for God’s peace as do all who held out the hope there would be justice for that brave woman.”
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.
Schneider told The Associated Press that he informed Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, in person on Monday of the decision and spoke with other relatives by phone. He declined to characterize their reaction, saying they could decide whether to disclose that.
The only possible sentence for Rodriguez now is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Schneider said. He wasn’t sure when formal sentencing would take place.
“He’s going to draw his last breath in a federal prison,” Schneider said.
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.
Forty-four inmates are 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.