Judge throws out death sentence for man convicted in 2003 Dru Sjodin slaying

Judge throws out death sentence for man convicted in 2003 Dru Sjodin slaying
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A judge last week threw out the death sentence for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. for the 2003 murder of Dru Katrina Sjodin, citing "misleading" testimony from experts and an insufficient investigation into Rodriguez's mental health.

In November of 2003, Sjodin, a 22-year-old student at the University of North Dakota, was abducted while walking to her car after finishing a shift at the mall where she worked. Her boyfriend at the time was speaking to her on a cell phone and heard her say "Okay, okay," before the phone call ended. 

Her body was later found on April 17, 2004 in Minnesota.

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On May 11, 2004 Rodriguez was charged with the kidnapping and killing of Sjodin in what was Nebraska's first federal death penalty case. Rodriguez had a history of sexual assault beginning at a young age and had been released from prison about six months before Sjodin's murder. He was sentenced to death on Sept. 22, 2006.

However, Judge Ralph Erickson for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated this sentence on Friday and ordered a new trial to be held. His ruling did not dispute that Rodriguez had in fact kidnapped and murdered Sjodin.

Erickson wrote in his 232-page decision that if the jury at the time had been made aware of the "severity of Rodriguez’s mental health condition," then it is likely that at least one member would have voted against the death sentence for Rodriguez.

The child of migrant workers, Rodriguez was described in the court documents as having been slow to reach developmental milestones as an infant and suffered from sexual, physical and emotional abuse during his upbringing.

"An adequate investigation would have exposed a possible insanity defense, and, at a minimum, information indicating that Rodriguez suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder ('PTSD') so severe that he sometimes has dissociative experiences," Erickson wrote, saying Rodriguez's defense had failed to lead a sufficient investigation into his mental health.

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"Because this evidence was not developed for trial, during the trial the government was able to discount and dismiss any possibility that Rodriguez suffers from PTSD," Erickson continued.

"The government told the jury repeatedly that this case was about Rodriguez’s intentional and deliberate choices. A choice to search for a female on November 22, 2003; a choice to sexually assault that female; and a choice to kill that female. That may not be the truth."

The judge also cited expert testimony from Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee, which he referred to as "unsupported, misleading, and inaccurate." As Erickson put it, McGee's testimony was "instrumental" in supporting the government's call for the death sentence as it supported the prosecutors' claim that Sjodin had been raped.

"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," wrote the judge.

The prosecutors' claim that Sjodin had been raped was based on McGee's non-scientific observation of what he thought could be seminal fluid surrounding her uterus during her autopsy. However, McGee later acknowledged that laboratory testing had not detected sperm cells or male DNA.

Speaking to The Associated Press, former U.S. Attorney and lead prosecutor in the case Drew Wrigley said he disagreed with Erickson's characterization of Rodriguez's defense team.

“I can't disagree with the court's characterizations of the defense counsel — of having been inadequately prepared, inadequately investigating, inadequately cross-examining and whatever else is said throughout the opinion — strenuously enough,” Wrigley told the AP. "These are lawyers who anyone would want defending them.”