A federal judge has thrown out a death sentence for a man who was convicted of murder due to misleading experts and insufficient investigation into the defendant’s mental health.
In November 2003, Dru Katrina Sjodin, a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student, was abducted while walking to her car after finishing her shift working at the mall. Sjodin had been on the phone with her boyfriend at the time, who heard her say “Okay, okay,” before the phone call ended. Sjodin’s body was later found in Minnesota on April 17, 2004.
On May 11, 2004, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was charged with the kidnapping and killing of Sjodin. Rodriguez had a history of sexual assault and had been released from prison about six months before Sjodin’s murder. A jury found Rodriguez guilty and sentenced him to death for his role in Sjodin’s death.
Rodriguez appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009 and lost his case. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. In October 2011, his attorneys filed a federal habeas corpus motion, which is considered the last step in the appeals process. Rodriguez’s habeas corpus motion came before Judge Ralph Erickson.
Death Sentence Thrown Out
Judge Erickson ruled that the misleading testimony of the coroner, the failure of defense counsel to outline the possibility of an insanity defense, and the evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder had violated Rodriguez’s constitutional rights. Judge Erickson threw out Rodriguez’s death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing be conducted.
In his ruling, Judge Erickson characterized Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee’s testimony as “unreliable, misleading and inaccurate” about the cause of Sjodin’s death. Judge Erickson pointed to McGee’s interpretation of the sexual assault evidence. The judge noted that McGee had offered opinions at trial that were not in his autopsy report—specifically that semen was found during his examination of the body and that it had been deposited in the body within 24 to 36 hours of Sjodin’s death.
Judge Erickson noted that new evidence had demonstrated that McGee was simply guessing and that his opinions were not scientifically supported by literature or any other expert who testified at trial. He wrote, “Few trials are perfect. Admittedly, even fewer trials are riddled with error because expert testimony is later proven to be so unreliable that had all the circumstances been known it would have been inadmissible…But, these post-conviction relief proceedings have uncovered credible evidence demonstrating that in the trial of this case, the truth was obscured.”
Judge Erickson further noted that if the jury had been made aware of the “severity of Rodriguez’s mental health condition,” then it was likely that at least one of them would have voted against the sentence of death.
He wrote, “An adequate investigation would have exposed a possible insanity defense, and, at a minimum, information indicating that Rodriguez suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’) so severe that he sometimes has dissociative experiences…Because this evidence was not developed for trial, during the trial the government was able to discount and dismiss any possibility that Rodriguez suffers from PTSD.”
He continued, “The government told the jury repeatedly that this case was about Rodriguez’s intentional and deliberate choices. A choice to search for a female on November 22, 2003; a choice to sexually assault that female; and a choice to kill that female. That may not be the truth.”