Convicted killer speaks from death row about night UND student died
By Stephen J. Lee
Forum News Service
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Alfonso Rodriguez was not insane when he deliberately killed Dru Sjodin 10 years ago after kidnapping her from a Grand Forks mall, according to the prosecution’s medical experts, who interviewed him on death row this past summer.
Federal prosecutors in Fargo on Wednesday released documents containing transcripts of the interviews as part of the government’s reply to Rodriguez’s last-stage appeal of his sentence.
He is shown describing in his own words chilling details of his encounter with Sjodin in the parking lot of Columbia Mall on Nov. 22, 2003. She was a 23-year-old University of North Dakota student at the time and he a convicted sex offender from Crookston, Minn., about 30 minutes southeast of Grand Forks.
In a 416-page motion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer says the two medical experts who interviewed Rodriguez concluded he is not mentally retarded, wasn’t insane when he killed Sjodin and, by his own account, didn’t kill her by accident as he has maintained for the past two years in his appeal.
Rodriguez was convicted in 2006 of the kidnapping leading to the death of Sjodin and sentenced to death in early 2007 by U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson. Now 60, Rodriguez has been on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., since.
He is the only person sentenced to death in North Dakota in a century.
Rodriguez’s appeals have been denied all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But under what is considered a death row prisoner’s last appeal, Rodriguez, with a new set of attorneys — one in Philadelphia, one in Chicago and two in the Twin Cities — is making a habeas corpus appeal.
It’s a lawsuit by a prisoner claiming he’s being wrongfully held.
In fact, it’s no longer a criminal case, it’s now a federal civil case — Rodriguez vs. the U.S. government — and the burden of proof is on Rodriguez to make his case, said Reisenauer.
The death row interview, submitted by prosecutors as part of the motion, was conducted Dr. Michael Welner, head of the New York consulting firm, The Forensic Panel, and James Seward also from the firm.
Welner wrote that he interviewed Rodriguez on June 28, giving Rodriguez “the opportunity to advance his complete version of events.” Seward interviewed Rodriguez in July.
Unlike interviews with the defense’s experts, these were recorded.
“Mr. Rodriguez asserts that he ‘never decided to take her life,’” Welner wrote. But by Rodriguez’ own detailed account of strangling Sjodin while she fought back over a period of time, including stopping and starting, “his determination would have to be that much more to overcome her,” Welner wrote.
Rodriguez said in the interview that he had seen Sjodin at the mall some time before he abducted her. Her appearance and clothing reminded him of the girl who allegedly molested him when he was a boy, he said, so he panicked and walked away.
But outside of another store, he encountered her again, and this time he decided to follow her, he said.
It was about 5 p.m. and Sjodin was in her car talking on her phone with her boyfriend when Rodriguez said he appeared and displayed his knife.
“When I looked at her, I sort of came back to my senses, the first thing I said, ‘That ain’t her,’” he said. “I was going to leave and then something, I don’t know, something clicked and I looked at her and then I told her to put her hands behind her back.”
The boyfriend, Chris Lang, got a call from Sjodin’s phone at 7:44 p.m., with no one at the other end.
“This life and death struggle for Dru Sjodin may have lasted for quite some time,” Welner wrote. “Two and three-quarter hours passed between 5:00 to 7:44 PM, when Mr. Rodriguez discarded Ms. Sjodin’s cell phone near her body. At the point in which he had hold of her neck, Ms. Sjodin would have experienced the desperation of trying to stay alive, before sustaining her fatal injuries.”
Her body was found in a ravine near Crookston five months later.
Rodriguez never admitted any involvement in Sjodin’s death, before or during his trial, or at his sentencing. Not until his defense team released in 2011 details of his interviews with a psychiatrist did he say he killed Sjodin, but said he confused her with a childhood abuser and lashed out at her.
The defense argued that their medical experts found Rodriguez was damaged by poverty, racism, post-traumatic stress syndrome and a poor upbringing and had long-term mental disabilities and went insane when he saw Sjodin, making him ineligible for the death sentence.
During the June interview, Welner wrote that “Al Rodriguez looked to be his stated age. He was clean and neatly groomed. There were no tics or odd mannerisms reflective of developmental disorder or chronic psychosis.”
Rodriguez came across well, was direct, matter of fact and a good liar, Welnar wrote, referencing Rodriguez’ account of a previous victim in Crookston: “He is able to articulate an abject falsity (for example, he indicated in our interview, not in previous statements, that Elizabeth Knudson would not sell him popcorn and this angered him enough to decide to rape her when he saw her in the parking lot — yet she was at the theatre on a date and was not employed there) with the same forthright comportment as he does verified history.”
Rodriguez did not appear mentally retarded in the report.
“The examinee’s memory is exceptional in some respects,” Welner wrote. “He provides the names of a number of grade schools in Crookston, 14 people from his group of Minnesota State Hospital peer inmates 35 years after they were together, conveys what they were locked up for and describes in detail the structure of the group therapy program at the heart of the MSH protocols. Mr. Rodriguez also provides accurate plot summaries of books he read.”
Reisenauer said Welner’s expert opinion is that Rodriguez demonstrated the ability to take care of himself, handle money, work and drive a car. Rodriguez, in fact, was working at a construction site in Polk County, Minn., the first time investigators contacted him only three days after Sjodin was kidnapped.
Welner did not find Rodriguez displaying signs of “dissociation,” which the defense said indicated he was insane at the time he killed Sjodin, Reisenauer said.
The prosecutor pointed out in his motion that Rodriguez denied any involvement in Sjodin’s disappearance from the first day he was questioned, even refusing his sister’s entreaty to say where he left Sjodin’s body, and that his silence continued through his trial and sentencing.
“Now there is videotaped documentation of his recollections that only speak to the callousness with which he acted and his lack of remorse for a legacy of antisocial and sexually deviant behavior,” Reisenauer wrote.