Prosecutors stop seeking death penalty for Dru Sjodin's killer
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered North Dakota's U.S. attorney, Mac Schneider, to stop pursuing capital punishment for the slaying of the 22-year-old University of North Dakota student.
FARGO — Federal prosecutors have halted their pursuit of the death penalty against Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. almost 20 years after he killed Dru Sjodin.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told the U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota to withdraw a notice of intent to seek capital punishment against Rodriguez, prosecutors said in a statement issued Tuesday, March 14. North Dakota's U.S. Attorney, Mac Schneider, filed the withdrawal Tuesday.
"The directive to withdraw the death notice has changed how the United States Attorney’s Office will proceed with this case," Schneider said in a statement. "What will not change is that Mr. Rodriguez will draw his last breath in a federal prison.”
Schneider told The Forum he couldn't comment on why the decision was made to stop seeking the death penalty, deferring questions to Garland's office. Garland's office has not replied to a request for comment.
"I was very straightforwardly directed to withdraw the notice," Schneider said.
The decision cannot be reversed by another presidential administration, Schneider's office said.
Schneider said Rodriguez will be resentenced to life in prison without parole. That is the mandatory minimum sentence under federal law for kidnapping and killing Sjodin, a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student.
"I certainly don't see a need for any proceeding," Schneider said. "That would obviously be up to the judge."
The Federal Bureau of Prisons will decide if and when to move Rodriguez off death row, though Schneider said he doubts Rodriguez would remain there long. Rodriguez is being held at a high security penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Rodriguez is the only person on death row who was convicted in North Dakota.
Prosecutors said Rodriguez kidnapped Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003, from Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, where Sjodin worked. He then sexually assaulted her and marched her down a ravine near Crookston, Minnesota, according to federal prosecutors.
That's where he slashed her throat and left her for dead in the snow, prosecutors said. Rodriguez, who at the time was a registered sex offender, was arrested shortly after Sjodin's disappearance.
Sjodin's body was found in April 2004.
In 2006, a jury found Rodriguez guilty of kidnapping resulting in death. The next year, jurors ruled he deserved the death penalty.
North Dakota and Minnesota abolished the death penalty before Sjodin's death. Since Rodriguez crossed state lines, the case was tried in federal court.
Kidnapping resulting in a death is one of the few federal crimes that carries the possibility of capital punishment.
Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson, who oversaw the juries that found Rodriguez guilty and handed him the death penalty, overturned the death penalty sentence in June. Erickson ruled that Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee gave "unreliable, misleading and inaccurate" testimony about how Sjodin died.
Noting that other experts said Sjodin could have died from strangulation, Erickson said Rodriguez's defense attorneys during the sentencing trial should have challenged McGee's claims, which the judge said were "based entirely on speculation."
"Without question, that speculative image contributed to the jury’s decision to impose the most severe penalty," Erickson wrote in his ruling.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced in January that he launched an outside review into McGee's work. McGee was the county's chief medical examiner from 1985 through 2019. He retired as a forensic pathologist for the county in 2021.
That investigation is still ongoing.
Erickson's ruling also said Rodriguez's mental health could have been a missed opportunity for an insanity defense. There was evidence Rodriguez suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being sexually abused as a child.
That PTSD could have been so severe that it may have caused dissociative states, resulting in him losing sense of reality, Erickson wrote in his ruling.
Federal prosecutors initially appealed Erickson's ruling but later dropped their appeal last year. Both sides were preparing for a second sentencing trial to reconsider the death penalty.
Rodriguez's defense team asked the U.S. Attorney General's Office to cancel its capital punishment authorization in the case, which the office did by ordering Tuesday's withdrawal.
Garland temporarily halted federal executions in 2021 so the U.S. Attorney General's Office could review policies and procedures.
President Joe Biden has said he wanted to end capital punishment for federal cases, though the White House has not come out with a specific position on prohibiting capital punishment. Biden also has said he doesn't want to interfere with U.S. Department of Justice decisions.
Schneider said his office pursued the Rodriguez case as directed. He commended and thanked his staff who worked on the case, as well as former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who secured the death sentence for Rodriguez.
"Over the last two decades, they have continuously upheld the high standards of the Department of Justice through their work on this tragic case," Schneider said in his statement. "As a result of their efforts, Mr. Rodriguez is — and will remain — a convicted murderer.”
Wrigley said it was a humbling privilege to lead the trial team. He said Tuesday's development in Rodriguez's case is "a grave affront to justice and to the hearts and souls of all who loved and cared for Dru Sjodin."
"Rodriguez will remain in prison for life, but the gates of death row will be opened, returning him to general prison population where he will be allowed to construct a social existence and life for himself within the confines he found so comfortable across the decades he was previously imprisoned," Wrigley said in a statement.
Schneider said his thoughts are with Sjodin's family, particularly her parents, Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin. The prosecutor spoke with family members on Monday about the decision.
"They are genuinely good people who have gone through unspeakable loss," Schneider told The Forum. "They've also worked closely with our office over 20 years. We have the deepest regard for the Walker-Sjodin family."
The Forum's attempts to reach Walker and Allan Sjodin were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Federal public defenders, who represented Rodriguez in his appeal, also did not return messages left by The Forum.