Rodriguez trial goes to the jury
The fate of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. rests with the jury in his trial, after attorneys presented their closing arguments in the case Tuesday afternoon. Rodriguez is charged in federal court with kidnapping leading to the death of college student Dru Sjodin in November 2003.
Fargo, N.D. — (AP) - Dru Sjodin fought for her life and left "unmistakable" evidence pointing to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. as the man responsible for her death, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley told jurors as they prepared to decide Rodriguez's fate. Rodriguez's attorney said the government failed to prove its kidnapping case.
Rodriguez, 53, a convicted sex offender from Crookston, Minn., has pleaded not guilty to a charge of kidnapping resulting in the death of the University of North Dakota student. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if he's convicted.
The federal court jury of seven women and five men got the case shortly after 4 p.m. CDT Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told them to choose a leader and set their own schedule for deliberations.
Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall on Nov. 22, 2003. Her body was found the following April in a ravine near Crookston.
Rodriguez's attorney, Robert Hoy, said a medical examiner called by prosecutors could not say for certain where Sjodin died, when she died, or the cause of her death.
"They don't know," Hoy told jurors. "The only guy they put on the stand who talked about it does not know."
In his closing arguments Tuesday, Wrigley told jurors that blood found in Rodriguez's car matched Sjodin's DNA, and it was found in a mist pattern, indicating Sjodin fought her attacker and was beaten.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Dru Sjodin battled him every step of the way, and she left us unmistakable messages," Wrigley said.
"She's right here," he said, pointing Sjodin's clothing introduced as evidence in court. "She's right here with all of us today. You can feel her strength."
Hoy said Wrigley's comments played to jurors' emotions and belonged "in some evangelical tent some place."
Wrigley said fibers from Rodriguez's blanket found on Sjodin's clothing and fibers from her clothing in his car were compelling evidence. He also said Rodriguez lied about his whereabouts on the day Sjodin disappeared.
"His stories sprung leak after leak after leak," Wrigley said.
Rodriguez did not take the stand in his owns defense and his attorneys called only one witness: George Sensabaugh Jr., a forensic science professor from California who said tests for sexual assault were not reliable.
Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer, Sensabaugh said he knew few details about the case and based his testimony on information from the autopsy and lab work.
Hoy asked Erickson to acquit Rodriguez, saying prosecutors did not prove Sjodin was alive when she was taken from the Grand Forks parking lot. Erickson denied the motion.
The judge said the condition in which Sjodin's car was found - with the driver's door locked, a shopping bag in the back seat, the passenger door unlocked and her wallet in the front seat indicate the possibility that "the victim was transported against her will within the lot itself."
Prosecutors called 52 witnesses in the case.
The government opened its third week of testimony by interviewing Dr. Michael McGee, a medical examiner who said he believes Sjodin was stabbed in the neck at the ravine where her body was found, though he acknowledged he could not pinpoint the exact cause of her death.
McGee, the Ramsey County (Minn.) medical examiner, also said he found evidence Sjodin was sexually assaulted. The assault could have happened up to 36 hours before her death or after her death, he told jurors Monday.
Prosecutors said Sjodin's hands had been bound behind her back and she was nude from the waist down, in a black and blue coat with a rope tied around her neck and remnants of a plastic bag when she was found.
McGee said a slashing wound to her neck was the most likely cause of death, though she could have suffocated from a plastic bag over her head or died from exposure to the elements. He said the wound to her neck was 5½ inches along with another parallel wound about 3½ inches along. Her injuries were not typical of those of a body being moved, he said.
"I think they were inflicted on the site where she was found," McGee said.
McGee also said Sjodin suffered a nonfatal stab wound to her right side, and had bruises on her face and right forearm.
Under questioning from Hoy, McGee said he could not determine with a "medical degree of certainty" when or where Sjodin died, because parts of her body were too badly decomposed.
Hoy suggested Sjodin suffocated after the bag was placed over her head, and that the bag was used to try to prevent her from identifying her attacker and not to kill her. He also said it did not make sense that her pants and shoes were found away from her body.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Norm Anderson said the defense theory was unrealistic.
"Where's the evidence to support Mr. Hoy's possible scenarios? There is none," he said.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
- Morning Edition, 08/30/2006, 7:20 a.m.