Hearing in death penalty appeal of Dru Sjodin's killer could last 7 days

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin have attended a handful of mostly procedural court hearings in the more than five years since the man who kidnapped and killed their daughter filed an appeal to spare his life. The next one will delve into painful details.

Attorneys for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who has been on death row at a federal prison in Indiana since 2003, are disputing whether Rodriguez raped University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin and whether she died from having her throat cut. The defense says both points were used to unduly influence the jury in the death penalty phase. Prosecutors say the arguments have no merit.

Walker, who has grappled with seeing her daughter linked to Rodriguez over the years, particularly when newspapers run photos of the two side by side, said her daughter "fought like a Marine" after she was abducted from a Grand Forks shopping mall. Walker, of Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, said she plans to "fight for her now as much as possible."

That means attending hearings that are difficult, as well as speaking out for other victims.

 "I ... think of her last hours on earth," she added. "That pales in comparison to what I can do."

She dismisses Rodriguez's new arguments.

"At the end of the day Dru didn't walk away from the grips of him," Walker said. "To get down to the nitty gritty of it all ... did she die from a knife to her throat or did she die from the cold? She didn't go there willingly."

Rodriguez, of Crookston, Minnesota, is the only person in North Dakota who has been sentenced to death under federal law. Until this point, most of the hearings in the case have been wrapped up in one day. This hearing, scheduled to start Tuesday, could last up to seven days.

It will focus on the testimony of Dr. Michael McGee, the Ramsey County, Minnesota, medical examiner who performed the autopsy. Defense attorneys say the centerpiece of the government's case was "the horrific testimony" by McGee that Sjodin was raped and died from two slash wounds to her neck.

Rodriguez's lawyers say McGee failed to properly test whether Sjodin was raped, and whether the neck wounds might have been from animals and decomposition after she died. The appeal says the government used that information to convince the jury that a death sentence was justified.

Prosecutors say the evidence of a sexual assault was overwhelming, including not only McGee's testimony but the fact that Sjodin was found naked from the waist down; her remaining clothing was ripped; she had been beaten; and her hands were bound behind her back. Beyond that, the government says it was unnecessary to prove sexual assault in order for the jury to find for the death penalty.

As for cause of death, prosecutors say that McGee never pinpointed the neck wounds as the definitive reason.

"From the United States' position, it mattered not whether a neck slash, asphyxiation, or brutal cold weather caused the death: all indicated that Rodriguez killed her in a heinous, cruel, or depraved manner," the response says.

Walker said that while the pace of the appeal has been disheartening, she said it's important to "keep Dru's name out there" in her quest to help victims of sexual abuse. She has lobbied the Minnesota Legislature and other governing bodies to close loopholes on laws regarding sexual violence.

"There are other victims out there who are voiceless and nameless," she said. "From that aspect, if it just compels legislators and people who can make a difference for our citizens, I think it's truly important."