NEW YORK, Oct 5 2006 (IPS) — A high-profile murder case in the U.S. state of North Dakota has drawn new battle lines between those who support and those who oppose the death penalty in a state which has not executed anyone in a century.
While many church leaders and human rights activists oppose the re-introduction of capital punishment, some conservative politicians think that it may be necessary to curb serious crimes like murder.
“Violence only promotes violence,” said Samuel Aquila, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, in a statement criticising a federal jury’s decision in September to execute a man convicted of committing rape and murder.
The jury sentenced 53-year-old Alfonso Rodriguez to death despite defence lawyers’ continued assertion that their client was in dire need of psychological treatment. No one has been executed in North Dakota since 1905, and the last person to be sentenced to death, in 1915, was spared.
Still, Rodriguez’s brutal murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, 22, shocked this sparsely populated northern state. Her body was found dumped in a ravine in neighbouring Minnesota some five months after she was kidnapped from the parking lot of a shopping mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in November 2003.
North Dakota outlawed the death penalty in the 1970s, but the verdict is allowed in federal cases. Rodriguez was charged under federal law because Sjodin was taken across state lines.
Bishop Aquila says he has no doubts about the gruesome nature of the crime Rodriguez had committed, but sentencing him to death is not an acceptable and just form of punishment.
“Responding to this senseless act of violence with another act of violence does not erase the hurt caused by the first act,” said the leader of the people of Catholic faith in Fargo, where the federal trial took place.
Like many others, Aquila is critical of conservative politicians who argue that the re-instatement of the death penalty could serve as a deterrence against heinous crimes, such as the one committed by Rodriguez. They have indicated they may be willing to revive death penalty laws that the state has abolished.
“I am open to that discussion,” North Dakota’s Governor John Hoeven said in interviews with the local media.
“We need to take very strong measures for these violent sexual offences, and we are going to put together laws in place,” he told reporters while commenting on the jury’s decision on the Rodriguez’s case last week.
There has been no legislative debate on the question of death penalty in North Dakota since 1995, when conservative politicians tried to get a bill passed. It failed because a vast majority of North Dakotans chose to side with abolitionists.
In their statements during the trial, Rodriguez’s family members cast doubts about his mental condition and his ability to act in an acceptable way in the world that exists outside the prison system.
Rodriguez, who has spent almost half of his life behind bars for repeated sex offences, was released from a prison just a few months before he kidnapped, raped, and eventually killed Sjodin.
“You can’t throw a man outside into society who hasn’t been there for 28 years and expect him to be successful,” Rodriguez’s sister Ileanna Noyes was quoted by the Associated Press before the jury’s decision came out.
A week before the jury’s verdict, a prison psychologist testified that Rodriguez had asked to see her in January 2003, when he was still in jail, and told her that he was “frightened” about being released.
At one point, Rodriguez’s lawyers told jurors to look at the “whole person” and understand that he was the son of a poor migrant worker, who was poisoned by farm chemicals and sexually abused as a child.
Even the parents of the victim publicly stated that they could have accepted a sentence of life in prison. None of that swayed the jury’s decision.
“Whatever would have happened, we would have been equally satisfied,” said Allan Sjodin, Dru’s father, in reaction to the death sentence. Dru grew up in the small Minnesota town of Pequot Lakes.
North Dakotans and Minnesotans who closely watched the proceedings of the case appeared torn. One vocal Minnesotan said he believed the jury’s decision in favour of death penalty was linked to its bias against non-whites.
“A 50-year-old Latino has been sentenced to death for the murder of 22-year-old college co-ed. Is any one surprised?” wrote Benjamin Powers in a letter published by the small-town paper the Winona Daily News.
“Had Miss Sjodin been a 32-year-old prostitute or Mr. Rodriguez been the handsome 30-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, this crime would not have been deemed as notorious,” he wrote.
David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, agreed that prejudice could have played a factor in the case.
“We see no evidence that race was a factor in Rodriguez’s sentencing,” he told IPS in an e-mail interview. “However, it does play a role in the death penalty overall. It is not the race of the perpetrator that matters the most, but rather the race of the victim.”
To Powers, what is disturbing about the Sjodin murder case is not the brutality of the crime, but that “our society says some people are more valuable than others.”
Elliot shares this observation.
“By and large, people do not get the death penalty for killing blacks and Hispanics,” he said. “They get the death penalty in the U.S. for killing whites. With our death penalty system, we send a message that the life of a white victim is worth more than the life of black or Hispanic victim.”
Studies in the U.S. show that non-whites are more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering white victims than for non-white victims, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.
Furthermore, the cost of defending Rodriguez from a death sentence will cost more than imprisoning him. His lawyer said that so far the cost of jailing and defending Rodriguez amounted to nearly one million dollars.
“Believe me, my firm lost money on this case,” Richard Ney, a lawyer who defended Rodriguez, told reporters. “If somebody thinks there’s a big windfall, they are mistaken.”
Nonetheless, Ney said he was determined to fight Rodriguez’s case all the way to the appeals court, which, in Elliot’s words, “will take years and years and years to work.”
However, Ney says he is determined to continue to fight to save Rodriguez’s life.
“Our focus should be on the Sjodin family and their loss,” he said. “But now it also becomes a focus on the Rodriguez family, and the execution of their son and brother.”
Ney will request a new trial, and if his motion is denied, he would begin the appeals process, he said. “Life is worthy of being saved, no matter whose it is,” Ney said.