FARGO — A judge who overturned a death sentence for Dru Sjodin’s killer was wrong to exclude the defendant’s intellectual disability as one of the reasons he can’t be executed, public defenders are arguing in recent court filings.
The request seeks to amend Judge Ralph Erickson’s order to resentence 68-year-old Alfonso Rodriguez. A medical examiner gave "unreliable, misleading and inaccurate" information about the cause of Sjodin’s death, and post-traumatic stress disorder could have caused Rodriguez to lose his sense of reality, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled on behalf of the U.S. District Court of North Dakota in early September.
Defense attorneys for Rodriguez were ruled ineffective for not challenging the medical examiner’s opinion and failing to explore Rodriguez’s PTSD, Erickson opined as reasons for overturning the death sentence. However, the judge said, Rodriguez’s appeal attorneys, who are based in Philadelphia, did not prove his intellectual disability could be used to avoid capital punishment.
In an Oct. 1 filing, Rodriguez’s attorneys asked Erickson to reconsider his decision on intellectual disability, which could strengthen their arguments if prosecutors try to seek the death penalty again.
A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death in 2007 for kidnapping the 22-year-old Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003, from Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Prosecutors said he raped Sjodin, marched her into a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, and killed her.
Her body was found April 17, 2004, in the ravine. Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death in 2006.
The guilty verdict still stands, but prosecutors must decide whether to appeal Erickson’s ruling, seek the death penalty during a new sentencing hearing or agree to let Rodriguez serve the rest of his life in prison. They must consult the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before proceeding.
Seeking the death penalty could be an upward battle, given that President Joe Biden has voice opposition to capital punishment. The Justice Department has put a hold on executions, though it still is seeking the death penalty in some high-profile cases.
Prosecutors have argued how Sjodin died — an autopsy report said the cause of death could have been from a wound to her neck, suffocation, strangulation or exposure to cold weather — doesn’t matter. Rodriguez’s actions, lack of cooperation with investigators and refusal to take responsibility, among other reasons, deserved the death penalty.
Former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley also said Rodriguez’s trial team waived the right to use a PTSD defense.
Rodriguez's appeal attorneys argue the claims laid out in the Oct. 1 filing fall under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Atkins v. Virginia, which states executing people who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. A person must show deficits in intellectual function and adaptive behavior, as well as exhibit onset of the condition before the age of 18.
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Rodriguez met the first two criteria but didn’t prove he was disabled before he turned 18, Erickson ruled.
Rodriguez was exposed to neurotoxic pesticides before he was born and when he was a child, and he started drinking alcohol and using drugs as early as age 7, according to his attorneys.
Those two things contributed to his intellectual disability, Rodriguez's team argued. He has a history of brain trauma, symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a family history that includes dementia, according to court documents.
Public defenders also noted the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities has changed its criteria for an intellectual disability to occur. Instead of 18, the developmental period in a human can last until age 22, according to definitions published in January.
Prosecutors previously argued Rodriguez did not meet the standards of an Atkins claim. He passed a General Educational Development, or GED, test and demonstrated his intelligence through reasoning, problem-solving, planning, reading and other skills, Wrigley said. Trial attorneys also didn’t pursue the Atkins strategy, Wrigley added.
Erickson noted Rodriguez self-reported reading more than 900 books.
A response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota is due Oct. 15, but prosecutors asked in a Friday court filing to extend the deadline to Oct. 29.
Public defender Joseph Luby, who penned the intellectual disability request, did not return messages left by The Forum.