Duh. News last week that suspected killer Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. would face death penalty consideration in the abduction slaying of Dru Sjodin was as much a surprise as death and taxes.
Factor, at least partially, the “Beauty and the Beast” angle behind this tragic and emotionally charged case, one that has made national and international headlines.
Rodriguez is a convicted and high-risk sexual predator who was released last year after serving 23 years for a brutal sexual assault. Sjodin was a bubbly, energetic and high-spirited 22-year-old student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
What is known is that Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., vanished Nov. 22 after leaving work at a shopping mall in Grand Forks.
I first confirmed that Rodriguez was arrested and charged after the missing girl’s blood and DNA were reportedly found in his car. In April, her remains were found in a ravine near the suspect’s residence in Crookston, Minn.
It didn’t help his situation that at the time, Rodriguez claimed he had gone to the mall to see “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” a film authorities confirmed was not being shown then. If he is indeed the culprit, Rodriguez made a grievous mistake by not negotiating a plea with prosecutors before Sjodin’s body was found.
Prosecutors would be foolish now to strike any deal. Rodriguez’s exposure to death penalty prosecution is not so much an aberration of prosecution discretion, but a consistent one in recent years.
Under U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the U.S. Justice Department has been three times more likely to seek the death penalty in federal court for minority defendants than non-minority defendants.
At least 75 percent of murder defendants facing federal death penalty trials in recent decades, both under Ashcroft and his predecessor, Janet Reno, were black or non-white. Half of the cases recommended for death penalty prosecution since 2000 have been in states that don’t have capital punishment.
Kevin McNally, a Kentucky-based lawyer who helps run a national capital defense counsel project, points out that as of Jan. 26 the federal government has tried 91 federal death penalty cases. According to McNally’s group, there are currently 59 death penalty defendants in states or other jurisdictions under U.S. law. Forty-three are African-Americans or members of minority groups.
“Federal prosecutors have great discretion and latitude in which case they select for capital consideration,” explains McNally.
A Clinton administration survey of similar prosecution decisions in 2000 confirmed a troubling geographic and racial disparity problem in death penalty case considerations.
More often than not, such cases involve sexual crimes and the victim is a different race than the perpetrator, McNally said.
“As human beings, even prosecutors react to that,” he said. “I can tell you that it is usually the gender and the background of the victim that drives this. Rodriguez is a man of Mexican descent. Sjodin was young, white and female.”
In talking about high-profile cases like Dru Sjodin’s murder, he said: “These are the kind of potential death penalty cases that attract federal prosecutors like bugs to a light bulb.”
Richard Ney, who is helping to represent Rodriguez at trial, says he doesn’t know and wouldn’t speculate on the religious or political motives behind last week’s decision.
“I can tell you that there is evidence that the process has been found to be racially and ethnically biased, and has been for quite a while,” Ney said.
With an overwhelming body of heinous crimes relegated to state court, the lingering question is whether federal prosecutors are taking the politically easy way out in this case.
“They really have nothing to lose,” Ney said.
Ultimately, it is juries—not prosecutors or judges—that decide who should face the death penalty.
Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered—and is being legally challenged in some places—is how the federal government can override the law of a state that has consistently opposed the death penalty. Perhaps, in the end, it ultimately depends on who the defendant is and who the victim was.