U.S. prosecutors said Tuesday that they will no longer seek the death penalty for a Minnesota man already on death row but awaiting resentencing for the kidnapping and killing of college student Dru Sjodin in 2003 — a case that led to changes in sex offender registration laws.
U.S. Attorney Mac Schneider in North Dakota filed a notice with the court withdrawing his effort to seek the death penalty for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. — a move he told The Associated Press he had to make after he was "straightforwardly directed by" Attorney General Merrick Garland to do so.
Sjodin, a Minnesota woman, was a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student when she was abducted from a Grand Forks, North Dakota, mall parking lot in November 2003. Rodriguez, a sex offender, was arrested the next month. Despite several massive searches, Sjodin’s body wasn’t found until the following April near Crookston, Minnesota.
Rodriguez was convicted in 2006 and was awaiting new sentencing after a judge overturned his original death sentence.
Eric Montroy, Rodriguez's public defender, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment. A phone message left with Sjodin's mother also was not immediately returned.
Schneider said in an interview that he informed Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, in person on Monday of the decision and spoke with other relatives by phone. He declined to characterize their reaction, saying they could decide whether to disclose that.
Sjodin’s death led to a dramatic shift in the way Minnesota handles sex offenders, with a drastic increase in the number who were committed indefinitely for treatment even after their prison sentences had run their course. Also, the national sex offender public registry, intended to give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders, was renamed for Sjodin.
North Dakota Republican Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who was the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Rodriguez, was critical of the decision not to seek the death penalty.
“This result is a grave affront to justice and to the hearts and souls of all who loved and cared for Dru Sjodin,” Wrigley said in a statement.
The only possible sentence for Rodriguez now is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Schneider said. He wasn’t sure when formal sentencing would take place.
“He’s going to draw his last breath in a federal prison,” Schneider told the AP.
The Justice Department has faced criticism from death penalty opponents for pursuing the death penalty despite President Joe's Biden's state opposition to capital punishment. In 2021, Garland announced a moratorium on federal executions and a review of execution processes. The Department of Justice won't issue orders to execute anyone while the moratorium is in place, but it doesn't stop the agency from pursuing new death sentences.
The Biden Justice Department has withdrawn permission to seek the death penalty in more than two dozen cases. However, in most other cases, defendants either hadn't gone to trial or hadn't been sentenced yet.
Forty-four inmates are on federal death row, and Justice Department lawyers have generally fought all their efforts to have their death sentences thrown out.
Rodriguez's previous death sentence was overturned in September 2021, when then-U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson ruled that misleading testimony from the coroner, the failure of lawyers to outline the possibility of an insanity defense, and evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder had violated Rodriguez's constitutional rights.
The federal death penalty wasn't a high-profile issue until then-President Donald Trump resumed executions in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus. With 13 inmates put to death in his last months in office, Trump oversaw more federal executions than any president in more than 120 years.
The first capital case tried under Biden ended Monday with a split among jurors that means the life of an Islamic extremist who killed eight people in a New York City will be spared. Many were surprised that Biden's Justice Department continued to pursue the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov — first authorized during Trump's presidency — given Biden's opposition to capital punishment.
In January, the Justice Department announced it would not seek the death penalty for Patrick Crusius in a 2019 racist attack at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that left nearly two dozen people dead. Crusius has since pleaded guilty to federal hate crime and weapons charges.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Tarm reported from Chicago.