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Rodriguez charged in Sjodin case; could face death penalty
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Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was charged in federal court Wednesday in the kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin. Federal authorities took over the case so the death penalty could be imposed if Rodriguez is convicted. (MPR file photo)
Convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge in the kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin. Rodriguez appeared in federal court in Fargo Wednesday, where he was charged with kidnapping resulting in death. If he is convicted, the 51-year-old Rodriguez of Crookston, Minnesota, could face the death penalty.

Fargo, N.D. — Rodriguez had already been charged in North Dakota with kidnapping. Authorities dropped that charge and moved the case to federal court, because they believe Rodriguez crossed state lines while committing the crime.

For Rodriguez, the biggest consequence of the move could be the penalty he faces. North Dakota and Minnesota don't allow capital punishment, but federal law would permit prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

"Discussion about what penalty ultimately may or may not be sought would be premature right now," says Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

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Image Dru Sjodin

Wrigley says if convicted, Rodriguez will either get life in prison or death. There are no other sentencing options. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will have the final decision on which option to seek. The U.S. attorney general has never sought the death penalty in North Dakota or Minnesota.

North Dakota repealed its capital punishment laws in the 1970s. No one had been put to death there for a crime since 1905.

Ashcroft's office says the case will be reviewed by the Justice Department according to standard procedures. Officials say if the death penalty is sought, it could take months for Ashcroft to issue a ruling.

The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin July 19. Wrigley estimates it could last three or four weeks. Wrigley says there is a plethora of evidence to go through.

"You've got testimonial evidence, physical evidence that goes in, scientific evidence. All of those factors come into play and it takes time," says Wrigley. "There's no way to short cut getting information out that you think is important for getting to the truth of the matter. We're not going to look for ways to do that."

Sjodin grew up in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, and was attending the University of North Dakota when she disappeared from a Grand Forks mall in November. Her body was found in a ravine near Crookston last month.

The federal indictment says Sjodin was killed "in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner." The indictment states the crime involved torture and serious physical abuse. According to the indictment, Rodriguez held Sjodin for the purpose of sexually assaulting her.

Rodriguez pleaded not guilty, but made no other statement at the hearing. His attorney was unavailable for comment afterward.

Because Sjodin's body was discovered in Crookston, prosecutors could have sought to have the trial in Minnesota. Tom Heffelfinger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, says the decision to try the case in North Dakota was simple.

"North Dakota ... is the appropriate venue, in light of the interest of the people in the Red River Valley," says Heffelfinger. "And in light of the fact that over 90 percent of the potential witnesses live in this proximity. This is the place to try this."

Sjodin's parents, Allan Sjodin and Linda Walker, issued a statement saying they are confident "that there will be a full and complete airing of the facts surrounding the abduction and murder of Dru, and that the correct verdict will be reached."

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