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Judges to hear Rodriguez appeal today

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A three-judge panel will hear the appeal of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.'s murder conviction and death sentence today in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul.

Rodriguez, 56, is in a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., sentenced to death for kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin and is not expected to attend the hourlong hearing.

Richard Ney, the Wichita, Kan., attorney appointed by the U.S. Justice Department as an expert death sentence defender for Rodriguez, and Robert Hoy, the West Fargo attorney who is Rodriguez's local counsel, are scheduled to be at the hearing.

North Dakota's U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley will argue the appeal himself, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer, is expected to be with him, a spokeswoman for Wrigley said.

Each side has 30 minutes for oral arguments that will include answering questions from the judges. It begins at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Warren E. Burger Federal Building, 316 N. Robert St., St. Paul.

Rodriguez's defense team's larger arguments seeking to have the 2006 conviction and death sentence overturned focus on what Ney and Hoy say were errors by Erickson and Wrigley handling a juror pool and a wider community they claim was unfairly prejudiced against Rodriguez because of his race, his record as a convicted sex offender who had spent most of his life in prison and the extensive media coverage of the case.

In the latest filing on the case last month, Wrigley argues that a case decided by the 8th Circuit Court last fall answers many of Rodriguez's attorneys' complaints about his own comments to the jury and the appropriateness of victim impact statements from friends of victims in such death sentence cases.

Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, and father, Allan Sjodin, are expected to attend.

The 8th Circuit Court, based in St. Louis, meets regularly in St. Paul.

The Rodriguez appeal will be heard by Chief Judge James Loken of Minneapolis, Judge Michael Melloy, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Judge Duane Benton, Kansas City, Mo.

Defense lawyers are seeking to overturn Rodriguez's 2006 conviction in U.S. District Court in Fargo. A jury convicted Rodriguez of Sjodin's 2003 murder. She was kidnapped outside a shopping mall in Grand Forks.

Her body was found in April 2004 near Crookston, Minn.