If you were in Courtroom 5A of the Warren Burger Federal Building at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, you would have seen the judges and attorneys leafing through a legal brief about as thick as a major metropolitan phone book, a veritable catalog of legal arcana.
The appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.’s death penalty for the rape and murder of a North Dakota college student covers scores of issues. Among them: his attorneys contend the the all-white jury was racially biased against him. They objected to U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley’s pleading final argument, urging them to remember Dru Sjodin, a young woman who lay abandoned, dead in a ravine, all winter, five years ago.
But judges James Loken, Michael Melloy and Duane Benton and the attorneys in the case spent most of their time on one of the least-known aspects of the case: the fall of 1974.
That October, Shirley Iverson was home in Crookston from college and offered to give Rodriguez, the son of a school lunch lady, a ride home after a night out with her girlfriends. He was the older brother of a classmate. “He used to fish in the river behind our house,” she remembers. “He lived right up the hill.”
But on the way home, he got her to stop the car and he sexually assaulted her. “I think the only reason he didn’t kill me is that he didn’t know how long it would actually take,” Iverson said, in a call after the hearing ended. “He was into strangulation. That was his thing.”
Iverson, 18 at the time, survived and reported the attack to police. According to court documents, Rodriguez admitted what he’d done and was charged with aggravated rape. The attack was the first in what turned out to be a long string of tragedies. Rodriguez got out of jail on bail and a month later attacked another woman in Crookston, raping her at knife point. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to the two assaults and spent the next 23 years in prison.
But the cases were back in court this week — for the third time.
They’d been revisited again three years ago, when Rodriguez was on trial in Fargo. The prosecution cited them as an indication of Rodriguez’s criminal history, and one of the “aggravating factors” in the case. Those factors are legally required for a defendant to be eligible for the federal death penalty. Shirley Iverson retold her story in court when the North Dakota jury was weighing the evidence against Rodriguez in the Sjodin case.
Iverson actually suspected Rodriguez all along, because she knew he’d been released from prison just months before Sjodin disappeared. The crime fit his pattern and she says she even looked a little like Dru herself back during the Ford administration.
Defense attorney Robert Hoy conceded Rodriguez had killed Sjodin on Thursday. But he told the judges that the his client’s previous convictions didn’t clear the legal bar for aggravating factors because the 1974 cases did not specifically spell out “substantial bodily harm.”
“You have no idea,” Iverson said, remembering the attack, 35 years ago. She’d lost consciousness as Rodriguez strangled her that night. “I had bruises all over.”
She read the MPR News story online about the morning’s Appeals Court argument from her home in Oregon on Thursday, and remembered the pain all over again.
Any assertion that it wasn’t substantial, Iverson says, is just flat wrong. Rape is among the most violent of acts, she says, whether it’s done with a knife, a gun or a rope – or no weapon at all.
She objected to the arguments made by Rodriguez’s attorneys. It’s like, she said, “you get to get a couple of these sort of freebie rapes, because it’s ‘no harm no foul,’ and it isn’t until later that you seriously hurt somebody that they really count. You just have this system that continues to minimize the crime, minimize the impacts of the crime, and minimize how people across the country reading this, women, are going to feel about it. One of the things I think that has made such a huge difference for women, is that we’ve tried to have this crime acknowledged [as] a horrible thing. And to me, this appeal just begins to undermine that. For me, personally, it feels like 35 years later, I’m still having to argue that this was a horrible crime.”
And don’t think this is just a debating point for Iverson.
She wants Alfonso Rodriguez dead.
Iverson fears still that he’ll be freed on a technicality, maybe to strike again — even find her, perhaps. And she doesn’t think just locking him up securely and throwing away the key is sufficient, either.
“The other thing that you have to understand about sex offenders, is that they fantasize about their crimes, both prior to committing it and after they commit it. And the fact that he has time in prison to be able to do that is galling to me,” Iverson says. “You know, it’s so easy to be socially liberal when you’re sitting in your arm chair, thinking about the death penalty. But, given who gets to spend the rest of their life in prison fantasizing about killing Dru or fantasizing about what he’s done to his other victims … He doesn’t deserve to be one of them.”