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Second phase of Rodriguez trial begins

Two women - forced and threatened by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. to perform sexual acts in 1974 - on Tuesday called the attacks traumatic and life-changing.

Two women - forced and threatened by Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. to perform sexual acts in 1974 - on Tuesday called the attacks traumatic and life-changing.

One victim said she quit college, worked seasonal jobs for 10 years in California and visited rape counselors for several years. The other victim said she suffers from panic and anxiety attacks, sleeplessness and depression.

The testimony gave jurors who convicted Rodriguez last week in the 2003 kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin more details about his past. Prosecutors in his capital trial say these crimes of "serious bodily injury" make him eligible to face execution.

Defense lawyer Richard Ney countered those details, saying the government can't prove the crime fits specific legal definitions outlined by federal law.

Lawyers plan to present closing arguments today in the trial's eligibility phase before jurors deliberate whether the prior crimes and other factors - centering on Rodriguez's mental state and behavior - make him eligible for the death penalty.

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A verdict finding Rodriguez eligible would move the trial into a final phase, where the seven-woman, five-man jury must either sign a death warrant or impose a prison sentence of life without parole.

Prosecutors called three witnesses for about 90 minutes of testimony Tuesday before resting their case on eligibility. The defense offered no witnesses, instead asking Rodriguez's victims about their lives.

Mental health factors range from reckless disregard to intentionally killing Sjodin. The aggravating factors include claims Rodriguez planned her death and killed Sjodin in a "heinous, cruel or depraved" way.

During U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley's 14-minute opening statement, he told jurors it's important to look at all of the aggravating factors regarding Rodriguez's behavior before they return a verdict.

"While you only have to find one, it's important you consider them all," he said. "They become the road map for what you'll consider in the next phase of this case."

Jurors would weigh the factors against the defense's evidence when deciding on a life or death sentence.

Ney began a soft, expressive 25-minute speech by telling jurors he was disappointed with their guilty verdict but respected it. The Wichita, Kan., death penalty specialist then appealed to their faith.

"Alfonso Rodriguez will die in prison," Ney said. "The question to be decided in this portion of the case is whether that will be when God decides or when man decides."

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He urged jurors to analyze the government's proposed mental health factors. "It's difficult to really know what's going on in someone's mind they tell you, unless you have pretty clear evidence about them," he said.

One by one, Ney also explained the jury's task on each aggravating factor relating to Rodriguez's behavior.

"Now, you might well say, boy, isn't every murder cruel? Isn't every murder depraved?" Ney said. "And I think I'd agree with you. But when we're dealing with this issue, we're talking about legal definitions."

The same legal argument applies to prosecutors' claims that Sjodin was tortured or prior victims suffered serious bodily injury, he said.

In making his point, Ney said the defense won't contest Rodriguez's 1980 conviction for attempted kidnapping and assault of a woman, who was stabbed twice. Also on Tuesday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected Rodriguez's appeal in that case after hearing arguments in June.

During cross-examination, Ney questioned both women about their extended careers. One woman climbed the ranks of the Oregon Department of Human Services. She worked for 25 years as a hospital technician.

Jurors heard again from Dr. Michael McGee, the Ramsey County, Minn., medical examiner who performed Sjodin's autopsy.

At the start of the day, U.S. marshals escorted a demonstrator protesting the death penalty from the courthouse steps. The man, who refused to give his last name, held up a sign quoting the Bible and moved across the street.

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U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said he had to weigh the man's right to protest with giving Rodriguez a fair trial. He said he would consider gathering jurors away from the courthouse each morning and having them brought through a security door.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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