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Alfonso Rodriguez

Rodriguez: I didn't mean to kill Sjodin

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FARGO - The new appeal by Alfonso Rodriguez of his death sentence in the 2003 killing of Dru Sjodin reveals details about Rodriguez's version of the crime not made public before - an account that includes his insistence to a psychiatrist he didn't mean to kill her.

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It also includes claims by Rodriguez that he confused Sjodin with a college girl who he said had sexually abused him in 1959.

The habeas corpus motion filed last week in federal court in Fargo by Rodriguez's new defense team - headed by Joseph Margulies, a Chicago law professor - is considered the last resort appeal after his direct appeals were turned down a year ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He was arrested Dec. 1, 2003, in his hometown of Crookston, Minn., only days after Sjodin disappeared from a Grand Forks parking lot while talking on her cellphone to her boyfriend and has been in jail since.

A federal jury in Fargo convicted him of murdering and kidnapping Sjodin and determined in September 2006 his sentence should be death. Rodriguez, 58, is on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

In the documents filed in federal court last week, Margulies cites a psychiatrist, Pablo Stewart, who interviewed Rodriguez about the killing.

Rodriguez said nothing about the crime from the day he was arrested until he was sentenced, refusing his sister's requests to tell investigators where he left Sjodin's body prior to it being discovered.

Based on the interview with Stewart, Margulies says Rodriguez was insane at the time he kidnapped Sjodin and unable to appreciate how wrong his actions were.

Rodriguez confused Sjodin with the college girl he claims had sexually abused him when he was 6 years old at a church camp, an account corroborated by his sister, Margulies said in the motion.

The girl wore "a college jersey" and was 19, Rodriguez told Stewart during the interview.

In speaking to Stewart, Rodriguez said he approached Sjodin after she was already sitting in her car in the Columbia Mall parking lot, a detail that never was made clear during the trial. It also reveals that he did stalk her, to a degree, inside the mall that day.

"He reported that he could not stop staring at her and immediately experienced a flood of emotions and physiological reactions," Stewart recounted. "He described feeling fear followed by anger and then panic. He began to dissociate, re-experiencing the abuse of his childhood. He described confused and chaotic thinking. At one level, he realized that the woman who abused him would have had to be much older than the young woman he saw at the mall. But he could not convince himself and could not act on that reality."

Rodriguez told Stewart he felt compelled to follow Sjodin, struggling within himself, he claimed.

Recalling the interview, Stewart said: "When she got to her car, she sat in the driver's seat, talking on the phone with her head turned. As Alfonso approached, she looked up at him and although he had been telling himself that it couldn't be his abuser, he described feeling shock and a physical reaction of surprise when he realized that she was not the same woman who abused him. He was, by this point, in a full-blown dissociative state."

That state of temporary insanity continued during his attack on Sjodin, the psychiatrist says, according to the court document.

Stewart said seeing a woman who resembled his abuser triggered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in Rodriguez.

"He had very powerful feelings that this actually was the woman who had abused him and he re-experienced the fear and anger and confusion and anxiety of that original trauma. And there were moments when she looked at him directly in the face, when he realized that she was not his abuser and he came back to reality. But he could not control that process and could not stay with the reality that he was a grown man in 2003 and not a little boy in 1959.

"He was angry at his abuser, not at Dru Sjodin," Stewart said.

Margulies, the defense attorney, also argued that the initial defense team should have done a better job showing the trial jury how intellectually impaired Rod riguez was his whole life: failing first grade twice, having his IQ tested in the 70-point range several times in elementary school and not making ninth grade until he was 18, for instance.

"Alfonso Rodriguez is mentally retarded," Margulies says, citing "evidence that could have been uncovered by the trial team and would have been, but for their ineffectiveness. And were there no more to learn about Mr. Rodriguez than the fact that he is retarded, that would be enough. Because the law accepts what no civilized society should question: We do not kill the mentally retarded."

Combined with his mental retardation and PTSD, Rodriguez was in a state "where he could not stop himself," Stewart wrote.

Rodriguez "never intended to take her life," Stewart said, in an account never heard at trial.

"At one point, when he was driving around town with her in the car, she began to struggle and bang on the windows. He tried to subdue her, struggled with her and eventually hit her, knocking her out and drawing blood. Once she was bleeding from the face and unconscious, he put a plastic bag over her head to contain the blood and he tied it with a string," Stewart recounted Rodriguez telling him.

"He does not remember exactly when he realized she was dead, but he knows that he then panicked and drove around looking for a place to put her body," said the psychiatrist in the motion.

Margulies argues that if Rodriguez's defense team of Ney and Hoy had "presented this evidence, no reasonable jury would have concluded that Mr. Rodriguez had been of sound mind at the time of the offense, and that it's likely Rodriguez now would "be in a secure federal hospital rather than on death row."

Prosecutors did present evidence of the remains of a plastic bag that had been around Sjodin's head when her body was found, and that evidence was found in the car of a bloody struggle. A knife found in his car trunk had traces of blood linked to Sjodin, the investigation found.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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