FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge has given prosecutors until July to respond to a request for a new trial or sentencing hearing from a Minnesota man sentenced to die for kidnapping and killing a North Dakota college student, and a legal expert said it could be years before the case is resolved.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was convicted in 2005 of raping, beating and stabbing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin and sentenced the next year to die. It was North Dakota's first federal death penalty case and led to tougher laws for sex offenders.
Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall on Nov. 22, 2003, after talking with her boyfriend on her cell phone. Rodriguez, 58, of Crookston, Minn., was arrested on Dec. 1, 2003. Sjodin's body was discovered in a ravine near Crookston on April 17, 2004.
Her mother, Linda Walker, attended a federal hearing in the case last week and said afterward it was difficult to listen to the claims in Rodriguez's appeal.
His lawyers filed a 298-page federal habeas corpus petition in October asking for a new trial or sentencing hearing. A habeas corpus petition asserts a prisoner is being held without sufficient evidence and demands his or her release.
Rodriguez's petition claims his defense lawyers, who were handpicked by the presiding federal judge, were incompetent.
"In some ways it's like a really good doctor who has done an operation, but something has gone wrong," said Joseph Daly, a Hamline University law professor who has followed the Rodriguez case and participated in death penalty appeals. "You're going to take a microscope to that even though most of us would say, 'Hey, that's a great doctor.'"
He predicted U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson will try to keep the arguments narrow, but there will be testimony, briefs and rulings.
"It's not a retrial, but it's going to require witnesses and experts and it's going to take time," said Daly, who thought the matter wouldn't be wrapped up until 2015.
If Rodriguez loses, he'll likely file another round of motions with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, Daly said.
The lawyers in the case met for the first time in court last week. Erickson and Keith Reisenauer, an assistant U.S. attorney, agreed on a July 2 deadline for the government to respond to the petition. Then the defense has until Sept. 4 to respond to prosecutors' arguments.
Daly said he understood that the case seemed like it was moving slowly.
"The victims want this to end. They wake up thinking about it. They read about it. And it just bothers them," he said. "But on the other hand, we have this process because we have this sense of fundamental fairness in our society. We're not going to take someone's life easily and readily. We just don't do it."
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