Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dru Sjodin's killer's appeal of federal death sentence denied

By JAMES WALSH, Star Tribune

Last update: September 22, 2009 - 8:04 PM
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. still is slated to become the first Minnesota resident to die by execution since the state abolished the death penalty in 1911.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the Crookston man's federal conviction in the 2003 kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin and rejected arguments to overturn his death sentence.

In a 77-page opinion, the panel voted 2-1 to affirm the death penalty and ruled that Rodriguez received a fair trial. As part of its opinion, the court ruled that the prosecutor's arguments during consideration of the death penalty did not prejudice jurors.

But appellate Judge Michael Melloy dissented, saying the prosecutor's statements to the jury may have led jurors to believe that a death sentence was their only choice. Melloy said he would have returned the case to federal court for a new penalty phase.

Defense attorney Richard Ney said Tuesday that Melloy's opinion shows there remain valid grounds to overturn Rodriguez's death sentence.

"We, of course, were disappointed on the whole of the decision. But we're gratified that Judge Melloy would have reversed the death penalty based on prosecutorial misconduct. He would have overturned the death penalty," Ney said. "It is astounding that we could put a man to death based on a 2-1 opinion."

Lynn Jordheim, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said the fact remains that the Appeals Court affirmed Rodriguez's conviction and sentence. "The defense will be taking further steps, but that was anticipated no matter what was the opinion [Tuesday]," Jordheim said. "We will address their arguments whenever they file."

Ney said attorneys generally have 14 days to appeal to the full 11-member Appeals Court for consideration, but more time is given in death penalty cases. He said he anticipates taking a couple of months to prepare for that step

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