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Rodriguez jury continues discussion on death penalty option

Jurors return to Fargo's federal courthouse today to deliberate the death penalty option for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. after failing to reach a verdict during five hours of discussions Wednesday.

Jurors return to Fargo's federal courthouse today to deliberate the death penalty option for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. after failing to reach a verdict during five hours of discussions Wednesday.

Twice during deliberations, jurors asked U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson to clarify his instructions as they reviewed legal definitions and a complex process in which they must decide if Rodriguez qualifies to face the death penalty.

The jury must determine whether Rodriguez qualifies with at least one threshold factor, which addresses intent and the defendant's role in Dru Sjodin's murder, and at least one aggravating factor, which relates to how Rodriguez carried out the murder and his past crimes.

The jury took about 3? hours last week to convict Rodriguez, 53, in the 2003 kidnapping and murder of Sjodin. The verdict prompted the trial's second phase, or eligibility phase.

If Rodriguez is found eligible for the death penalty, the jury of seven women and five men would hear additional testimony, including the defense's mitigating evidence, before deciding whether to sign a death warrant or sentence him to life without parole.

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Before jurors arrived Wednesday for closing arguments in the eligibility phase, lawyers debated how Erickson should instruct jurors in applying the law to evidence presented in the case.

At one point, defense lawyer Richard Ney pounded his hand on a table and objected to a comment by U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who said defense counsel misstated the law in one argument.

In his closing argument to jurors, Ney said clues about Sjodin's kidnapping point to a disorganized and unintentional murder.

"This is a matter of the greatest importance we're dealing with here, the issue of life and death," said Ney, who asked jurors to set aside their emotions and apply legal definitions in deciding the case.

"You have to look dispassionately at the evidence, at the law, at these very rigid parameters we've set for you," Ney said. "And, again, that's purposeful and that's what makes our law so majestic."

Using the evidence, jurors must ask themselves questions about the crime, he said. Would an organized killer leave behind traces of blood and fibers? Would he dump the victim's body near his hometown and immediately make himself a suspect?

"This was a crime of immediacy, impulse, without planning," Ney argued.

One by one, Ney said aggravating factors aren't supported by evidence in the case - no proof Rodriguez planned the murder, no proof Sjodin suffered torture or serious physical abuse, no proof she died during the kidnapping and insufficient proof that Rodriguez's prior victims suffered serious bodily injuries.

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U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley described Rodriguez's actions as "shockingly evil," evident by the heinous, cruel and depraved manner in which he killed Sjodin before leaving her in a ravine near his hometown of Crookston, Minn.

"Your common sense must be applied to the facts in the case," Wrigley urged jurors as he reminded them that Rodriguez's prior attacks became increasingly violent.

Finally, after 23 years in prison, Rodriguez planned how to carry out his attacks without leaving a victim to testify, Wrigley said.

"Dru Sjodin would not breathe a word of this to anyone, not one single breath," he argued. "That was his intent."

Wrigley asked jurors to consider the pain and terror Sjodin endured in her last few hours.

"When a young woman is forcibly abducted, punched, slapped, rendered bloody, bound and bagged, stripped of her clothing ... then snuffed out with two vicious knife cuts to her neck, this is set apart from other killings," Wrigley said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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