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Appeal Filed In Case Of Slain ND College Student

FARGO, N.D. (WCCO) -- A last ditch legal effort is being made to keep convicted killer Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr. off an Indiana Federal prison's death row. Rodriguez, Jr. is the man convicted back in 2006 for the kidnapping, rape and killing of University of North Dakota college student, Dru Sjodin.

On Tuesday in Federal Court in Fargo, N.D., a Northwestern University law professor working on Rodriguez' behalf filed a motion to have facts in the case reconsidered.

The 298-page petition for habeas corpus basically urges U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson to reconsider the conviction and death sentence. Professor Joseph Margulies, who has represented other death row convicts, claims that Rodriguez' defense team at trial was ineffective and failed to uncover the defendant's mental illness.

In 2006, a Federal jury in Fargo convicted the 58-year-old Rodriguez, Jr. for the kidnapping, rape and killing of Dru Sjodin. Her disappearance from a Grand Forks shopping mall back in 2003 set off a massive search across eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Now, the same court that convicted Rodriguez will be asked to review the nearly petition to see if a hearing will be ordered to consider any new evidence on the defendant's behalf.

Legal experts at William Mitchell College of Law say a petition for habeas corpus is generally viewed as a "last ditch effort" to avoid the death penalty.

"It's his last best hope," said adjunct professor Brad Colbert. "What he's doing is essentially collaterally challenging the conviction. It's a whole separate lawsuit. It's basically a civil suit where you're collaterally challenging the conviction, where you're starting out saying this is why this conviction should be reversed."

Past counsel for Rodriguez exhausted other appeals. A three judge panel of the 8th Federal Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to deny a new trial. Later, the defense team lost an attempt at appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The petition filed in Fargo by Professor Margulies seeks to paint the trial team as "ineffective, because it failed to uncover evidence that Rodriguez is mentally disabled."

Reached by telephone, Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, is not surprised that the petition for habeas corpus is being made. Rather, Walker is frustrated that money is being spent to prolong the life of her daughters' killer and not on work to prevent more victims.

"It's frustrating knowing that money could be spent on trying to retrieve somebody who's out there that's missing or that needs this sort of funds to protect themselves or others," said Walker.

Federal Judge Ralph Erickson will now have to consider the petition and decide if he will grant a hearing that will grant the federal prosecutor and Rodriguez' attorney an opportunity to make their oral arguments.

Walker believes that because this is a death penalty case, she would be shocked if Judge Erickson doesn't grant a hearing in the months ahead.

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