State of Minnesota settles with Dru Sjodin's familyby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Department of Corrections has paid $300,000 to Dru Sjodin's family to settle a wrongful death claim. Settlement documents show the family planned to sue the state for damages in connection with their daughter's abduction and murder by sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr.
The settlement documents say the Department of Corrections agreed to pay damages to Sjodin's family to avoid the expense and uncertainties of a lawsuit. The documents say the state admits no wrongdoing, liability or that it violated state or federal law.
The terms of the agreement provide little detail about why the family intended to sue the state. Critics have argued that Rodriguez should not have been released, but committed indefinitely as sexually psychopathic. The Corrections Department released Rodriguez, who was a Level 3 sex offender, seven months before Sjodin disappeared.
Though the state admitted no fault, family members said they were satisfied with statements made by state officials and believe they were heartfelt.
"We never talked about the money," said Linda Walker, Dru Sjodin's mother. "What we really wanted was something in writing from the state, 'I'm sorry. We were wrong.' That's an important part of the healing on our part."
"The settlement shows the state dropped the ball," said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.
Atkins has authored legislation on toughening laws for convicted sex offenders. He says the Sjodin case shows the state needs to do a better job of preventing sex offenders from getting out and committing more crimes.
"The Legislature and the administration have done a good job of punishing these crimes, but once they're committed it's difficult to go back and unring the bell. There's already a victim, there's already people hurt," Atkins said.
The governor's office released a statement that blamed the previous administration for releasing Rodriguez.
Since then, the state has "dramatically toughened procedures and laws relating to sex offenders to make them among the strongest in the nation," the statement said.
The former head of the Minnesota Security Hospital at St. Peter, however, says the state doesn't use its dollars wisely in committing sex offenders. Dr. Michael Farnsworth says the state should commit longtime sex offenders to prison, not to treatment centers.
The Department of Human Services says it costs more than $140,000 a year to commit a sex offender to specialized programs. Farnsworth says the state should be spending more money on younger sex offenders and intense supervision.
"Taking these men into these sex offender treatment programs after years, or in some cases decades, and then thinking, 'We can turn them around with talk therapy,' is as unlikely a positive outcome as taking people in terminal stages of cancer and then making the decision to start treating them when they're just about to die," Farnsworth said.
The settlement raises the question of whether policymakers will change course in how they treat sex offenders.
One national expert who studies how state courts deal with sex offenders says settlements can lead states to overreact.
"States might overprosecute, they may overcommit, they may try to keep sex offenders either in prison or in a civil commitment system for as long as possible -- even though they're not, in fact, at high risk for committing another sex crime," said John LaFond, an author and retired law professor at the University of Missouri.
Former state Health and Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the settlement probably won't change sex offender policy, since this case was unique.
"After the case was discovered and the situation happened, there was a reaction on the state level and the local level with how to proceed with civilly committing sex offenders," he said. "And I think the reaction has already taken place, so I really don't believe the settlement will impact that more or cause any more changes to take place."
Documents say the state settled the case in July, but did not release the agreement until a reporter asked for it. A Department of Corrections spokesperson said the department doesn't usually release settlement agreements out of privacy concerns.
Last February, a federal judge in Fargo sentenced Rodriguez to death for Sjodin's murder.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
- All Things Considered, 10/16/2007, 5:24 p.m.