Trial starting in coed's abduction-slaying that changed laws in two states

Monday, July 3, 2006

Lawmakers in North Dakota and Minnesota approved tougher sentences for sex offenders.

FARGO, N.D. -- The abduction of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin from a shopping center parking lot and the discovery of her body five months later, after an emotional search, has led to major revisions of sex offender laws in two states and to North Dakota's first federal death penalty case.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a 53-year-old convicted sex offender, is to go on trial Thursday in federal court in Bismarck. He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of kidnapping resulting in the death of the University of North Dakota student more than two years ago.

Federal prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

"This will be a national trial," said Joseph Daly, a criminal law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. "A federal death penalty case is quite unusual, especially when you're talking about a state that doesn't have the death penalty."

The federal indictment says Sjodin was killed "in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner, in that it involved torture and serious physical abuse."

North Dakota's last execution was in 1905. The state's death penalty law was abolished in 1975.

Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., disappeared Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks mall where she had gone shopping after getting off work at a Victoria's Secret store. Moments before, she had talked with her boyfriend by cell phone.

Hundreds of people, many of them college students, volunteered to search for her. The governors of North Dakota and Minnesota sent the National Guard to help.

Rodriguez was arrested within two weeks of Sjodin's disappearance when police investigated a tip that he was in Grand Forks on the day she disappeared. His bail was set at $5 million, although Rodriguez asked to remain in custody for his own safety.

Sjodin's body was found the following April, after deep snow melted, in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived with his mother. That's about 25 miles from Grand Forks.

Over the next two years, lawmakers in North Dakota and Minnesota approved tougher sentences for sex offenders, including life without parole for the most serious offenses and stricter supervision of offenders after they leave prison.

Members of Sjodin's family spoke around the country in favor of a proposed national sex offender registration, known as "Dru's Law."

"Every time there is a case like this, it shines the light on some aspect of the system that wasn't tight enough," said Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson took precautions to ensure a fair trial, moving it from Grand Forks to Fargo, assembling a jury pool more than 12 times the normal size, and increasing the number of juror disqualifications allowed for the defense.

The judge also issued a gag order preventing lawyers and others working on the case from talking to reporters, but later allowed them to talk more openly about information in the public record.

Defense lawyer Robert Hoy, a court-appointed attorney from West Fargo, would not comment on possible defense strategies.

Members of Sjodin's family have politely refused to comment since Erickson issued the gag order.

"For us to go through this is absolutely nothing compared to what Dru went through," her mother, Linda Walker, said in December.

Frase said he does not expect the trial to capture as much interest as the search for Sjodin.

"The sensational thing about it right away was that it was so centered around the victim and the sense of surprise and threat that people feel, especially people not normally considered to be at risk," Frase said.

However, Sjodin's fellow students at UND will likely follow the trial closely, said Jordan Schuetzle, who was the student body president when she disappeared.

"I think it was such a substantial incident in the history of our campus, it still seems like it was a few months ago," said Schuetzle, now a UND law student. "People are still thinking about it; people are still talking about it."

"The one amazing thing about it is that it really united our campus," he said. "We were all out there looking; we were all out there supporting each other. This one thing brought almost 13,000 students together."

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