With IQ an issue during appeal of death sentence, prosecutors quote killer on God, hiding body, cable news
FARGO — On Monday, Feb. 4, day six of a federal court hearing focused on whether Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is ineligible for execution based on his mental health, the court heard testimony from a government-called expert who quoted Rodriguez regarding his views on religion and God.
"If He (God) is so merciful ... if there's so much evil in the world, why doesn't he get rid of it?'' said neuropsychologist James Seward quoting Rodriguez from an interview conducted in prison in 2013, seven years after Rodriguez was sentenced to death after he was convicted at trial of kidnapping and killing 22-year-old Dru Sjodin in 2003. Sjodin, from Pequot Lakes, Minn., was a student at the University of North Dakota when she disappeared from a Grand Forks mall.
Rodriguez has been on death row ever since the trial and on Monday, Jan. 28, a hearing began in U.S. District Court in Fargo to explore a defense contention that Rodriguez has an intellectual disability and is therefore not eligible to be put to death.
Expert witnesses called by the defense testified that a number of factors, including Rodriguez's poor school record and IQ tests from his early days support a diagnosis of intellectual disability, which in the past was called mental retardation.
One of the factors necessary for a diagnosis of intellectual disability is establishing that an individual has difficulty living independently. Prosecutors on Monday attempted to paint Rodriguez as someone who could form opinions on a variety of subjects and share them in an articulate manner.
In his testimony Monday, Seward talked about a statement provided by a man who lived near the Crookston, Minn., home of Rodriguez's mother. The man said that when Rodriguez was released from prison in early 2003, he took over many household and yard chores for his mother, including growing flowers.
Seward also shared snippets of conversations he had with Rodriguez over the course of interviews conducted in 2013, including one in which Rodriguez talked about how he decided where to dispose of Sjodin's remains.
Rodriguez told Seward he didn't want to get stuck, "So, I took gravel roads all the way home."
Seward said Rodriguez talked about a ravine where he used to hang out that had furrows "where the earth opened up because of water, and some of them were pretty deep.
"So, that's where I put her." Seward quoted Rodriguez as saying.
Sjodin's body was found near Crookston months after she disappeared.
The government showed a video in court of a conversation between Seward and Rodriguez in which Rodriguez talked about the TV he watched in prison, including CNN and sometimes Fox News.
In the video clip Rodriguez offered a critique of cable news:
"It doesn't work to have news 24 hours a day," Rodriguez said. "They report everything, whether it's news or not."
Rodriguez has waived his right to attend the hearing and has not appeared in court since the hearing started Jan. 28.
On the subject of God, Seward quoted Rodriguez from a 2013 interview as stating: "I have a hard time with religion, period. If He (God) is so merciful . . . if there's so much evil in the world, why doesn't he get rid of it?"
In addition to maintaining that Rodriguez is intellectually disabled and therefore cannot be executed, attorneys for Rodriguez have filed papers seeking to have his conviction and sentence overturned based on what they claim was false testimony presented during trial.
The court has yet to rule on either claim.
Rodriguez was released from prison in early 2003 after having served decades behind bars for sexual assaults.
He had been free a relatively short period of time when he was arrested later in 2003 in connection with Sjodin's disappearance.