Former U.S. Atty, local victim react to overturned death sentence for Alfonso Rodriguez

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

    It’s been 18 years since the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin and 14 years since Alfonso Rodriguez was sentenced to death for her kidnapping and killing, but a federal judge’s recent ruling overturned the death penalty for the case and a new sentencing trial could be held for Rodriguez. Crookston woman Shirley Iverson, who was raped by Rodriguez in 1974, said the overturned sentencing has brought back painful memories and felt that the culture of secrecy had allowed him to become a rapist.

    Iverson told the Times that the difficult part of being a rape or sexual assault survivor is the extended legal process and said research shows it does prevent assaults from being reported.

    “I was raped in 1974 and there really were not services for victims in place,” Iverson explained. “We now have the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA, which funds victim services, but the court process, the steps that are taken, and the number of levels of appeals are in place to make sure the accused has rights in a trial. Not only in my life, but every life that he (Rodriguez) has touched has been impacted by the decades that this has gone on.”

    Iverson said she spoke with Sjodin’s mother since the overturned death penalty news came out plus she’s spoken with the acting U.S. Attorney General Nick (Nicholas) Chase and the U.S. Attorney General that prosecuted the Rodriguez case, Drew Wrigley.

    “The thing with Dru’s mom is it was important for me to let her know that I will do everything I can to be Dru’s voice about the terror of abduction and that Dru’s not forgotten,” Iverson stated. “I have come back to the area so many times to collaborate or to testify or assist with Dru’s investigation and I keep trying to think if there was something I can add to those investigations over the years.”

    “Each time I get on the witness stand, either on Dru’s trial or other trials, it is that the validity of my experience, my assault that is questioned, even though he’s already been found guilty and sentenced in my 1974 case, but the validity of that sentence comes under cross examination of his defense attorneys,” she added. “It’s a deep psychological process each time to go on that witness stand and currently I’m not sure if I will have to go on that stand again, and it’s not a happy moment or anything I look forward to, but whatever it takes to ensure Dru has justice.”

    One thing that Iverson has said over and over again is that “everyone needs to report everything.”

    “One of the reasons I felt I had to leave the town (Crookston) after what happened to me in 1974 was it was a huge secret about the past behaviors of Alfonso and what he had done in the community,” Iverson continued. “It’s only in retrospect that you can see the path from allegedly stealing underwear from school lockers to abduction, stabbing, and rape. It is the culture of secrecy regarding sexual assault that allowed him to become a rapist.”

Dru Sjodin. Alfonso Rodriguez.

JUDGE’S OPINION

In a 232-page opinion issued September 3 by Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Erickson, who presided over Rodriguez’s jury trial and sentencing in the mid-2000s after Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping Sjodin from the Columbia Mall on November 22, 2003 in Grand Forks and killing her in Minnesota just outside Crookston, he states the defense attorneys were “ineffective” during the 2007 sentencing trial and called the Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee’s testimony about Sjodin’s cause of death as “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate.” Erickson says that prosecutors (based on McGee’s testimony) had theories that Rodriguez raped Sjodin, marched her down a ravine, slashed her throat and left her to bleed to death in the snow.

    Erickson has said that he believes that “speculative image contributed to the jury’s decision to impose the most severe penalty” and felt that a jury may have imposed a life sentence in prison if it had heard about Rodriguez’s severe mental illness.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota will look at possible options on how to proceed and could ask the court of appeals to review and reverse Erickson’s decision, hold another sentencing trial and seek the death penalty again, or agree to give Rodriguez life in prison without parole. The ruling did not affect the guilty verdict and Rodriguez remains in federal prison.

COMMENTS FROM WRIGLEY

    In an interview with the Times, former U.S. Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who prosecuted the Rodriguez case from its beginning into 2009, says the overturned sentence is a “head scratcher” and “enormously controversial” adding that, in a sense, Judge Ralph Erickson is reversing his own decision.

    “Imagine our surprise after 10 years of hearings, filings and depositions, the judge who hand-picked the defense attorneys and oversaw all of their expenses, signing off on their expenses which included experts in psychology and forensics, in essence has deemed them ineffective - all focused on the mental health case for Alfonso Rodriguez,” Wrigley explained. “Their psychiatrists and our psychiatrists (then) didn’t disagree on much and the two defense attorneys conceded the cause of death which allowed the judge to block us from putting (evidence) photos in front of the jury. It was a good move, a tactical move, so imagine our surprise when the person that presided over the trial, who hand-picked these lawyers, then reverses the death sentence of the jury. There was no substantial jury misconduct and it reverses the case based on ineffectiveness. There you have it in a nutshell, a head scratcher, it’s enormously controversial. Almost like he’s reversing himself.”

    Wrigley said Judge Erickson, during Rodriguez’s trial in the mid-2000s, rejected the first request to throw out the trial and said it was a fair constitutional trial. In February 2009, Wrigley said he argued the direct appeal in the government’s case and prevailed with everything upheld. Then, when it went to the Supreme Court, there was a unanimous vote that they would not grant a hearing and ruled there wasn’t anything to be evaluated so the conviction stood, Wrigley added.

    In regards to Judge Erickson’s comments about Rodriguez’s defense attorneys, Richard Ney and Robert “Bob” Hoy, Wrigley gave compliments of both.

    “The judge selected Richard Ney, who was one of four attorneys with the most death penalty litigation, word was he never lost; and he appointed a second lawyer, Bob Hoy, who is one of the finest attorneys I’ve tried against,” he admitted. “I’ve tried a lot of cases and Bob Hoy is the finest and very capable, and was hand-picked by the judge and picked wisely.”

    Wrigley said later in the conversation that anyone that watched and followed the case would have seen that both Ney and Hoy were “highly effective, capable, hard working and strategically tactical, and had a solid team of people.”

    “Alfonso Rodriguez is guilty by no reasonable doubt; the judge has question about the method,” Wrigley pointed out. “He (Rodriguez) either sliced her throat or he strangled her, or he put a bag over her head and asphyxiated her, or left her out there beaten unconscious, out there tied up, to die from exposure. There’s evidence that can support any of those items. The medical examiner gave his advice and I argued the case to the jury - knife to the neck. Had the medical opinion been that she was asphyxiated there would have been different closing arguments.”

    To be eligible for the death penalty, Wrigley continued, there needs to be aggravating factors and the jury found three.

    “He (Rodriguez) had 300% of the aggravating factors: one was two (2) rape convictions, one was attempted abduction, one victim he stabbed her with such force but bad luck for him she was a portrait artist and they (law enforcement) arrested him immediately. He served 23 years (in prison) and got out in May 2003. Months later, on November 22, 2003, he kidnaps, beats, ties up, strips, sexually assaults or attempts to, and kills her (Dru Sjodin) by homicidal murder. He sat at home watching the news while her dad searches through the woods and valleys and fields surrounding Crookston and Grand Forks and everywhere between.”

    Wrigley said he stood by the prosecution’s case and stated the death penalty for Rodriguez was the appropriate thing, and that the jury made the right decision after what Rodriguez did to Sjodin. He added that if there should be a new sentencing trial that evidence photos could be shown to a new jury.

    “We defended our work every step of the way,” Wrigley continued. “The BCA agents were excellent, all the locals and federal agencies, there were terrific law enforcement and ethical people especially with a case like this. They played the audio of the BCA interview with Alfonso Rodriguez and he was treated with respect and it was fair, and they gave him every opportunity to accept responsibility. Things might have gone very differently had he accepted responsibility and helped find Dru’s body, but when he had already been found guilty and already sentenced to death he came back to give some impression of what he did was wrong. It was an obvious transparent attempt to pick his penalty for what he had done.”

    “It’s been a lifetime of trial for people who lived through his assaults,” he added. “I was a prosecutor for 18 years and any act of violence and sexual violence it’s a trauma and that doesn’t ever close with the case.”

Tom Heffelfinger, right, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, joins Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, as they discuss the indictment charging Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. with kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin, during a news conference in Fargo, N.D. Rodriguez pleaded not guilty that day. AP Photo.