A federal judge called lawyers together from both sides of a North Dakota death penalty case and urged them on Monday to work together to avoid unnecessary delays.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., of Crookston, Minn., is facing execution for the 2003 kidnapping and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minn. Defense attorneys have filed a federal habeas corpus motion, considered the last step in the appeals process.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson on Monday set a July 2 date for prosecutors to file their response to the 298-page defense document that claims, among other things, that Rodriguez was mentally disabled and his trial team was ineffective.
The judge told lawyers to narrow the scope of their arguments and group issues together in cases where there's overlapping evidence. Otherwise, Erickson said, the families "have to suffer through this endless parade" of motions and hearings.
"I would like to see as few surprises as possible," Erickson said.
Sjodin was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall in November 2003. Authorities said she was raped, beaten and stabbed. A jury sentenced Rodriguez to death on Sept. 22, 2006.
It was the state's first federal death penalty case and resulted in tougher laws for sex offenders.
Rodriguez, 58, is being held on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His habeas corpus appeal was filed by attorney Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several death row inmates.
Margulies told Erickson it's a difficult case that will become more complex as lawyers tackle the issues. He said he wants to sit down with Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer to hammer out a schedule to argue evidence in the case.
"I don't even want to put a date on what that might be," Marguiles said.
Reisenauer said the July 2 deadline to finish the government's response might be ambitious, but told Erickson it's important to "get the ball rolling" so the case doesn't get bogged down with hearings.
Linda Walker, Sjodin's mother, attended Monday's hearing. She said in an interview afterward that Rodriguez's appeal contains "excuses on his behalf which are disturbing in so many ways," but said she expects him to exhaust all options.
"It all seems so surreal," Walker said outside the courtroom where Rodriquez was convicted and sentenced to death. "There's not a day that goes by when I don't think of Dru."
Rodriguez lost an appeal with a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote. He asked for a hearing in front of the full court, which was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Erickson met behind closed doors with lawyers after the hearing to discuss issues that have been sealed from public view. The judge scheduled the next status hearing for Aug. 20.