Late last year, as seems to happen all too often in this country, a young woman disappeared and after a search of many months, only to be found dead many months later. This time, the victim was Dru Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student who vanished after leaving her job at a mall in Grand Forks.
After a long and emotional search, someone found her body lying in a snow-covered ditch in rural northern Minnesota, and soon afterwards, a convicted sex offender was arrested. He had been released from prison in Minnesota six months before Sjodin’s disappearance after serving a 23-year prison sentence for attempted kidnapping, assault and other convictions for attempted rape and aggravated rape. Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., is the suspect in this case, and, according to the police, the circumstantial evidence against him, including DNA evidence, is quite strong.
At this point, it would seem that the authorities either in Minnesota or North Dakota would see fit to charge Rodriguez for kidnapping or murder. If the evidence is as strong as the authorities have said, then it would seem that Rodriguez would be looking at spending the rest of his life in prison, as neither state has the death penalty.
However, this is not an ordinary case, given the massive publicity given to the girl’s disappearance and the tragedy that it has brought to Sjodin’s family and others in that community. Furthermore, whoever committed this crime committed a monstrous act, whether it be Rodriguez or someone else.
In many states, an individual convicted of such a crime almost certainly would be sentenced to death. However, as pointed out earlier, neither North Dakota nor Minnesota has the death penalty, which tends to reflect the character of the people in those states. North Dakota has only three percent of the population claiming no religious affiliation at all (the lowest ranking in the country), and the majority of Christians on that state either are Roman Catholic or Lutheran, with the leadership of both religious bodies having spoken out against capital punishment.
Roman Catholics and Lutherans also are the majority of Minnesota churchgoers. Furthermore, both states have produced many leading politicians who have stood against capital punishment on the basis both of religious and liberal outlooks. In other words, it is not surprising that the legislatures of both states have not seen fit to enact the death penalty.
Since the people of North Dakota and Minnesota have opposed capital punishment on principle, one would expect to see those principles coming forth in a case like the murder of Dru Sjodin, as heinous as it was. Instead, we see the corrupting influences of federal criminal law, which has been imposed in a way that once upon a time the courts would have declared to be unconstitutional. Rodriguez has been charged with a crime, you see, but the court in which he will be tried is the federal court — even though murder always has been a state, not federal, crime. That being the case, the feds have not charged him with murder, but with something else that in legal terms can only be called bizarre.
The indictment, obtained in federal court, in part reads that Rodriquez “knowingly and unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnapped, abducted, carried away, and willfully transported Dru Katrina Sjodin in interstate commerce from the state of North Dakota to the state of Minnesota, and held her for the purpose of sexually assaulting her, and otherwise, resulting in the death of Dru Katrina Sjodin.” (Italics ours)
Because Sjodin apparently was kidnapped in North Dakota and taken to Minnesota, thus crossing state lines, federal prosecutors have a “hook” by which to step in and charge Rodriguez with a crime. Moreover, it is obvious that the federal courts have become involved for no other reason than Rodriguez can be executed if found guilty in the federal system. In other words, the authorities already are planning the execution of someone who has not even stood trial. Furthermore, they are claiming that this is a case of interstate commerce, which clearly it is not.
It is not surprising that John Ashcroft would be so opportunistic. Ashcroft has long supported harsh punishment for even the most innocuous acts, and it was his attack on a black Missouri judge nominated to the federal bench by then-President Bill Clinton that ultimately led to Ashcroft’s 2000 defeat in the U.S. Senate race in that state to a dead man. (Ashcroft claimed that the judge was “soft” on the death penalty, which made him unfit to be a federal judge. Enraged black voters turned out in droves to provide the winning margin for Ashcroft’s dead opponent, Mel Carnihan, who had perished three weeks earlier in a plane crash.)
Furthermore, Ashcroft during his tenure has more than proven to be someone who seeks to impose federal jurisdiction where the U.S. Constitution clearly does not permit it, nor has Ashcroft demonstrated much respect for the legal rights of individuals. In short, Ashcroft has demonstrated that he despises the document that he swore to protect and defend when he took office in 2001.
There is no doubt that Ashcroft’s move here has been popular. The outrage following Sjodin’s kidnapping and murder is understandable, and had Rodriguez (should he be found guilty) committed these crimes in another state, he very well could have been facing the electric chair or lethal injection. However, the point here is that the people of both North Dakota and Minnesota have spoken clearly through their legislatures that they do not want people executed in their states. Thus, Ashcroft also has enticed the people in those states to compromise their very principles on capital punishment, which is no small matter.
To make matters worse, the rules of evidence in federal courts are much more loose than the rules in state courts and are written to favor the prosecution. Hearsay evidence, which is not permitted in state trials, is routinely used in federal court to prejudice juries and to grease the skids for convictions. Thus, it is far less likely that Rodriguez can receive even an inkling of a fair trial in a U.S. courtroom than would be the situation either in Minnesota or North Dakota state courts.
In other words, federal authorities have concluded that Rodriguez is guilty, and that the death penalty needs to be imposed. This simply is another way of declaring: “Verdict first, trial later.”
Perhaps Rodriguez is guilty, but if justice is to prevail, it must be done under proper legal principles in a real court of law, not the politically expedient manner in which he is being charged, and certainly not in a federal kangaroo court. The involvement in this case of the federal courts — which are purely utilitarian and represent the ugly political side of the law — not only has greased the skids for the execution of the defendant, but also has enticed the people of these states to violate their own moral principles. In the end, there is no law, only corruption and the rule of ambitious, amoral people.
May 17, 2004
William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Candice E. Jackson [send her mail] is a graduate of Pepperdine Law School and is an attorney for the West Coast office of Judicial Watch.