Huffpost College

Dru Sjodin Case: Appeal Filed In Case Of Slain North Dakota College Student

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FARGO, N.D. -- Lawyers for a man sentenced to death for killing a University of North Dakota student took what is considered the final step in his appeals process, claiming in a motion Tuesday that he is mentally disabled and his trial team was ineffective.

The 298-page document, a so-called habeas corpus motion, was filed in federal court for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who was convicted of kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin of Pequot Lakes, Minn. Rodriguez, 58, of Crookston, Minn., is being held on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

His appeal was filed by attorney Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several death row inmates. U.S. attorneys in the case depicted Rodriguez "as little better than an animal, uncaring and unworthy," Margulies said.

"We now know this carefully scripted tale conceals much and reveals little. Little about the government's case, and even less about Alfonso Rodriguez, was true," the document says. "In the pages that follow, we describe in meticulous detail the difference between what was and what could have been."

Federal prosecutors declined to comment. A judge must decide whether to conduct a status hearing and schedule any further proceedings in the case.

Rodriguez earlier lost an appeal with a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote. He asked for a hearing in front of the full court, which was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Margulies criticized his client's previous lawyers on numerous issues and said they failed to uncover that he is mentally disabled.

"And were there no more to learn about Mr. Rodriguez than the fact that he is retarded that would be enough," the lawyer writes. "Because the law accepts what no civilized society should question: we do not kill the mentally retarded."

Sjodin was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall in November 2003. Authorities say she was raped, beaten and stabbed. A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death on Sept. 22, 2006. It was the state's first federal death penalty case and resulted in tougher laws for sex offenders.

The document filed Tuesday 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 psychiatrist Pablo Stewart.

"There were moments, when she looked at him directly in the face, when he realized that she was not his abuser and he came back to reality," Stewart is quoted as saying in the motion. "But he could not control that process and could not stay with the reality that he was a grown man in 2003 and not a little boy in 1959."

Stewart said Rodriguez told him he had no plans to kill Sjodin and repeatedly told her he would let her go. At one point, while he was driving around town, she began to struggle and bang on the car windows. Rodriguez eventually hit her and knocked her out, then put a plastic bag over her head, the document says.