FARGO, North Dakota — Nearly a decade after jurors convicted Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in the kidnapping and killing of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, several members of the panel found themselves back in the courtroom this week — now on the witness stand themselves.
A hearing that stretched over two days is part of a last-ditch effort by Rodriguez's attorneys to undo the death penalty he was given following his 2006 conviction in Sjodin's death. The Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, woman's disappearance in 2003 sparked massive searches and drew nationwide attention, and her death led both Minnesota and North Dakota to toughen laws on sex offenders.
Some questions and answers about the case:
JUST WHAT HAPPENED IN COURT THIS WEEK?
Rodriguez's attorneys are alleging juror misconduct based mainly on responses to a 121-question survey and interviews with prospective jurors as the panel was selected. Court documents on their motion are sealed from public view, but on Tuesday, one of his attorneys grilled juror Rebecca Vettel for several hours. The attorney suggested Vettel hadn't given truthful or complete answers on things like traffic citations and lawsuits she was involved in, and also didn't mention at the time that she had once alleged being the victim of an attempted sexual assault.
What happened after that isn't clear, because on Wednesday, the judge closed most of the proceedings when he said there were issues that involved minors.
HOW OFTEN DOES SUCH A TACTIC WORK?
Not too often, when the alleged misconduct relates to information given on a jury questionnaire or interview. That's according to Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Hamline University who has followed the Rodriguez case and has participated in death penalty appeals.
"Typically, when there's a jury of 12, and all 12 come to a decision on such a serious case, even if a juror left out something intentionally, most of the time the courts of appeals say it's harmless error," Daly said.
For example, Vettel was asked why she didn't mention in her questionnaire that she had been arrested three times for driving without insurance. She said the question had a caveat that excluded "simple traffic violations," which she believed fit the nature of her infractions.
Daly said the question was open to interpretation.
DID THE JURORS HAVE TO APPEAR?
Yes, but they did not have to grant earlier interviews to the Rodriguez lawyers, who used those discussions to bolster their arguments for juror misconduct. Lawyers have the right to seek interviews with jurors, but they don't have to agree, Daly said.
Some observers in the courtroom this week were wondering about the process and some social media contributors complained about defense lawyers putting the personal lives of jurors on public display. One juror called to testify Tuesday burst into tears as she was being sworn in.
"I don't think I would do it," Daly said of calling jurors to the stand. "But it's strong advocacy. A man's life is at stake, and as his lawyer, so you do everything you can within the law."
SO WHAT KIND OF JUROR ACTIONS COULD BE A PROBLEM FOR PROSECUTORS?
A juror taking a bribe, or an outsider making contact with a juror to influence the outcome of the case, can sometimes lead convictions to be overturned, Daly said. None of that was alleged in open court this week in the Rodriguez case.
Quick said the classic law school example of juror misconduct is a deadlocked jury that leads them to roll dice to get a verdict. Again, that has never been part of the Rodriguez case.
"It's a long shot obviously. It's a hail Mary," Quick said. "It would have to be pretty egregious."
OK, SO WHAT'S NEXT?
The Rodriguez team's motion is a federal habeas corpus motion, considered the last step in the appeals process. Attorneys on both sides have until Nov. 6 to file briefs on the issue of juror misconduct. The next hearing in the case is scheduled Jan. 13.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez continues to be held in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he's been since 2006. He listened in to this week's hearing with one of his lawyers at a room in the prison.