The man convicted of kidnapping and killing college student Dru Sjodin was formally sentenced to death Thursday in a hearing that brought tearful tributes from her family and friends and a passionate speech from the judge.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson handed down the death sentence Thursday to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who showed no emotion and declined a chance to speak. Erickson, fighting back tears, said it was the most difficult day of his life.
Rodriguez, 53, a convicted rapist from Crookston, Minn., was found guilty by a jury last fall of kidnapping resulting in the death of Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student from Pequot Lakes, Minn. The same jury voted unanimously for the death penalty.
Sjodin, 22, disappeared from a Grand Forks shopping mall parking lot in 2003. Her body was found nearly five months later in a Minnesota ravine. Authorities said she had been beaten, raped and stabbed. Rodriguez had been released from prison six months earlier for other crimes that included rape and attempted kidnapping.
Sjodin's parents, Allan Sjodin and Linda Walker, refused to address Rodriguez during the hearing Thursday or talk about him afterward.
"I don't say his name and it's a nonentity. It's not worth my time," Allan Sjodin said at a news conference.
"I, quite frankly, at this point in my life, didn't care to ever hear anything from him," Walker said.
Walker said she has spoken to the Rodriguez family in the past, but turned down their request to get together before the trial.
"I just didn't feel comfortable with it," she began. "It seemed to me it was ...
"Too little, too late," Allan Sjodin interjected.
Authorities said they expected to begin moving Rodriguez to a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., within days to await death by lethal injection. His attorney, Richard Ney, gave notice that he plans to appeal.
"I know in my heart this sentence does not reflect the heart of this community," Ney said during a two-minute statement before sentencing. "It reflects, I think, the fear of this community. And when we act in fear we never act appropriately, I think."
Ney said the death sentence will not bring peace to the Sjodin family. "But I do know it will bring devastation to another," he said.
Erickson rejected a motion for a new trial before handing down the death sentence.
"Today is the most difficult day of my life," the judge began.
"If it were possible, I would gladly lay down my own life to have had this whole ordeal avoided, to have Dru Sjodin back with her family, to have never heard of you, Mr. Rodriguez," Erickson said. "The life of one federal judge more or less pales in comparison to the pain that this crime has inflicted on so many people."
Allan Sjodin said later that Erickson gave a "touching" and "powerful" statement.
"Certainly I've always understood he's a heartfelt person," he said. "I've always felt he was ... not necessarily for the death penalty."
U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley would not elaborate on Erickson's emotional closing.
"I guess we all have our thoughts on those matters," Wrigley said. "I'll just say this: What we're focused on is the days of this young woman's life and her family. Our hearts are with them."
It is the first death penalty case in North Dakota in nearly 100 years. The state does not have capital punishment, but it is allowed in the federal system.
Rodriguez will be the 45th inmate on federal death row. The average time for a sentence to be carried out is six to eight years, Wrigley said.
Before the sentencing, about 15 of Sjodin's relatives and friends spoke about her life and the impact of her death. Walker was the last of the group to speak.
"I have been told to talk from my heart," Walker said. "Well, my heart has been torn into a million little pieces."
The testimony came from teachers, sorority sisters, cousins, co-workers, classmates and longtime family friends, many of them donning clothing or ribbons in pink, Sjodin's favorite color. They described her as a talented artist, athlete and musician who had many friends.
"I remember Dru as a vision of beauty, inside and out," said Charity Pankonin, a cousin.
"She would light up any room she entered," said Vanessa Sjodin, another cousin.
Celia Baker, a friend since grade school, said Sjodin had agreed to be a bridesmaid in her wedding and had bought a dress and bachelorette present. "My wedding day came and went and there was still hope of having her back then," she said.
After Sjodin's body was found, it "hit like a ton of bricks," Baker said.
Before victim impact testimony, Ney objected to allowing people other than family members to speak. He said it was a violation of federal court rules and it didn't make sense because the sentence had been determined by a jury.
"What's the point, frankly?" Ney asked.
In rejecting Ney's complaints, Erickson said the statements provided an opportunity for healing and would do more good than harm.
The case has led to tougher sex offender laws in North Dakota and Minnesota, including life without parole for the most serious offenses and stricter supervision of offenders after they leave prison.
Rodriguez was charged under federal law because Sjodin was taken across state lines.
North Dakota's last execution was in 1905. The last person sentenced to death was spared in 1915.
By Dave Kolpack, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)