Technicality could decide trial of Rodriguez
FARGO, N.D. -- Court watchers were surprised last week by what they didn't hear during opening arguments in the federal trial of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
There was no emphatic denial of the crime from Rodriguez's defense attorney, Robert Hoy.
Presumption of innocence was mentioned, but not belabored.
Instead, Rodriguez appears to be pinning his hopes on the very words of the federal statute he's charged with, which says a person is guilty of kidnapping resulting in death if they take someone across state lines and the victim "was alive when the transportation began."
Hoy seized on the latter clause, saying prosecutors will not be able to prove when or where Dru Sjodin died.
"This is the wrong charge in the wrong court," Hoy told jurors, adding the case should be heard in North Dakota state court, where the death penalty is not an option.
Because he is being tried in federal court, Rodriguez, 53, could be executed if found guilty of abducting Sjodin from the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, N.D., where the 22-year-old worked at a Victoria's Secret store.
Police found Sjodin's car in a parking lot in the extreme northeast corner of the mall, opposite from where police said employees of Victoria's Secret would typically park.
Police also found a knife sheath near the car, which had been left with its driver's door locked and passenger door unlocked.
A purse Sjodin purchased from the mall's Marshall Field's store just before she vanished was found in the car's back seat.
Legal experts have differing opinions about how effective the defense strategy of focusing on jurisdiction might be.
Peter Erlinder, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said he thinks Hoy could be on the right track placing attention on the issue of "transporting" and its meaning within the federal kidnapping statute.
"I'm not aware of a well-accepted definition," he said.
"The court is going to have to make its own judgments with respect to what transporting means and then charge the jury with deciding whether the facts (of the case) show congressional intent in the statute was proven," Erlinder said.
A conviction wouldn't end questions about jurisdiction, Erlinder said.
The court of appeals, he said, would likely decide whether U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson's jury instruction -- based on the judge's view of what "transport" means -- was correct or not.
The legal wrangling could continue all the way to the Supreme Court, he said.
Thomas Heffelfinger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota at the time prosecutors decided to try Rodriguez in North Dakota federal court, said he doesn't think jurisdiction will be a major issue.
"It may be an appropriate (defense) strategy in this case. I just find it unusual in light of the fairly clear language of the statute," said Heffelfinger, who is now in private practice.
Heffelfinger said that in cases he is familiar with, transporting a victim -- kidnapping -- does not require a specific distance.
"It can be a mere matter of feet," he said.
Hoy's opening statements questioned whether anyone can prove what happened during the earliest moments of Sjodin's abduction.
Was she approached in the mall parking lot and forced into or made to drive to another vehicle, which ultimately carried her to rural Crookston where her partially nude body was found?
Or did Sjodin, as Hoy told the jury, die "within a matter of minutes in the mall parking lot" before any transportation across state lines ever began?
Papers filed by prosecutors indicate Ramsey County (Minn.) Medical Examiner Michael McGee concluded that cuts found on Sjodin's neck were likely inflicted where her body was found.
Also, blood patterns in Rodriguez's car were inconsistent with Sjodin's injuries having occurred before "transport from another location," the papers said.
The defense has secured its own forensic expert, and a hearing will be held regarding what McGee can tell the jury.
Barry Feld, professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, said jurisdictional questions are standard in many federal cases, but said they have particular relevance in this trial.
"It's more critical in a case like this, where because of the circumstances of the offense, jurisdiction may be a real issue," said Feld, who has been following the case in the Twins Cities media.
"It's just so high profile, it's in the news everywhere," he said.
The statute Rodriguez is accused of violating is known as the "Lindbergh Law," because it was prompted by the kidnapping in 1932 of Charles Lindbergh Jr., infant son of the famous aviator, said Gregory Gordon, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
"Back then, it was difficult for law enforcement to deal with kidnapping," Gordon said.
"If it (the crime) were conducted across state lines, any state would be beyond its (the law enforcement agency's) jurisdiction if the kidnapper and the victim were no longer within that jurisdiction," said Gordon, a history buff who said he's actually held a ransom note from the Lindbergh case.
Gordon said he was surprised Rodriguez's defense is bidding to sink the government's case on jurisdictional grounds.
"I think what the defense is trying to do is lay the groundwork for appellate issues."
Gordon said: "You don't have a very sympathetic defendant. I don't know how eager the jury is going to be to acquit this guy on a technicality."