No immediate dismissal of ND death penalty appeal
FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- A judge in North Dakota's first federal death penalty case asked attorneys Thursday to narrow down their arguments before he decides whether to dismiss the appeal filed by the man convicted of killing a college student 10 years ago.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told lawyers there appears to be "insufficient factual evidence" for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s appeal to continue. However, he declined to make a final ruling and said it was too early to determine if the appeal could be dismissed without a hearing. He instructed attorneys to revise their arguments.
"If we can narrow those issues, I would appreciate it," Erickson said. "At this point there are a lot of pages, a lot of things said, a lot of issues raised."
Lawyers for Rodriguez Jr., of Crookston, Minn., appeared in Fargo to update on the habeas motion, generally considered the last step in the appeal process.
Rodriguez's attorneys filed the appeal in October 2011, claiming among other things that Rodriguez is mentally disabled and his trial lawyers did a poor job a poor job of defending him. Prosecutors said the appeal has no basis and asked Erickson to dismiss the motion.
A jury in 2006 convicted Rodriguez, a convicted sex offender, of kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minn. It was the first federal death penalty case in North Dakota and resulted in tougher laws for sex offenders.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer, the only prosecutor at the table during the 15-minute hearing, told Erickson that after the hearing he would be meeting with defense attorneys.
Sjodin was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall in November 2003. Her body was found five months later near Crookston, where Rodriguez lived with his mother. He had been released from prison earlier in 2003 for other crimes that included rape and attempted kidnapping.
The appeal describes Rodriguez's troubled childhood and claims he was sexually abused by a college student when he was 6 years old. Rodriguez allegedly told a psychiatrist that Sjodin resembled the woman who abused him. That triggered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and caused him to lose touch with reality, according to the psychiatrist.
Prosecutors in their response scoffed at the notion that Rodriguez's trial lawyers should have sought an insanity defense when none of the experts who evaluated Rodriguez recommended any further testing. The government said two medical experts who interviewed Rodriguez in June concluded he is not mentally disabled and didn't kill Sjodin by accident, as the appeal claims.