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Focus shifts to victim as killer's appeal hearing enters final days

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. listens at his bail hearing on a kidnapping charge in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks on Dec. 4, 2003. Forum file photo1 / 2
Dru Sjodin was abducted outside a Grand Forks mall and killed in 2003. 2 / 2

FARGO — A post-conviction hearing for convicted kidnapper and killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. began wrapping up in federal court on Wednesday, Feb. 6, the eighth day of a proceeding that focused on the question of whether Rodriguez has an intellectual disability, a condition which would make him ineligible for execution.

On Wednesday, Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and an expert testifying for the government, brought the focus of the hearing back to Rodriguez's victim — 22-year-old Dru Sjodin — by relating what Rodriguez told him during interviews conducted in federal prison in 2013.

Welner said Rodriguez talked about what happened after he abducted Sjodin, a Pequot Lakes, Minn., native, from a mall in Grand Forks in November 2003, stating that Rodriguez said he hadn't planned to kill Sjodin but did so after Sjodin, whose hands were bound, began kicking him and struggling with him as he drove.

The government also played a short video clip of Rodriguez talking to Welner in which Rodriguez matter-of-factly talked about how he drove on lightly traveled roads to a ravine near Crookston, Minn., where he lived, and hid Sjodin's unclothed remains in a depressed spot in the earth, covering them with grass clippings.

"And that was it, you know?" Rodriguez said, punctuating his words with a shrug.

According to hearing testimony, determining if someone has an intellectual disability is predicated on three things: an IQ of about 70; findings that a person has deficits when it comes to adapting to the demands of everyday life; and a finding that the disability arose before a person turned 18 years old.

Welner and another expert who testified for the government, James Seward, a neuropsychologist, told Judge Ralph Erickson that Rodriguez does not meet the criteria for intellectual disability based on several factors, including adult IQ scores in the 80s and evidence that Rodriguez functioned well while in prison and in state security hospitals.

Expert witnesses for Rodriguez portrayed a contrasting image, stating that his poor performance in school, which included failing a number of grades, as well as IQ scores in the 70s during the years he was in school, supported a diagnosis of intellectual disability, as did examples of times when Rodriguez appeared to exaggerate his abilities in an effort to mask his limitations.

One boast cited by the defense was a claim by Rodriguez that he read 500 books over the course of about two and a half years.

In general, an IQ score between 90 and 110 is considered average, according to online sources.

Rodriguez was convicted in a 2006 trial of kidnapping and killing Sjodin and he was sentenced to death.

Attorneys for Rodriguez have filed papers claiming his conviction and sentence should be overturned because false testimony was presented at trial, a claim the court has yet to rule on.

In his testimony, Welner cited examples of "criminal cunning" on the part of Rodriguez, which Welner said exemplified his ability to reason and to think "on the fly" when committing crimes and covering his tracks.

Defense attorney Annie Fisher pointed out that Rodriguez left a knife sheath at the scene of Sjodin's abduction and that he left the knife that goes with it, which he used in the crime, in his car, where authorities found it.

She also noted that Rodriguez, who is now 65, has been incarcerated in one facility or another almost continuously since his early 20s.

The hearing that began on Jan. 28 is likely to conclude Thursday, Feb. 7.