FARGO, N.D. – The five years since the abduction and murder of a University of North Dakota student have brought tougher laws against sex offenders. Top state and federal prosecutors say it's not enough.
Dru Sjodin, a UND senior from Pequot Lakes, Minn., was taken from the parking lot of a Grand Forks shopping mall on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003, after talking with her boyfriend on her cell phone. Her body was discovered in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., five months later. Authorities said she had been beaten, raped and stabbed.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a convicted rapist from Crookston, was sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing the 22-year-old Sjodin. He is in a federal prison in Indiana awaiting execution while his lawyers prepare to argue an appeal.
The prosecutor who sent Rodriguez to death row, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, believes the case captured national attention because Sjodin was abducted while walking to her car after shopping. It could have happened to anybody, Wrigley said.
"There was this raw feeling that there was no way to protect against this," Wrigley said.
State and federal lawmakers have since tried to bolster that protection. A dozen new laws against sex offenders have been enacted in North Dakota since Sjodin was killed. Minnesota has taken similar steps. The names of victims have been attached to federal legislation, including the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, Katie's Law, and Dru's Law.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the case has created an intolerance toward sex offenses that was long overdue. But more is needed, he said.
"You're never satisfied. You can always do things better," Stenehjem said. "There are serious offenses and this has resounded with the public and the legislature and the judiciary."
Minnesota made major changes in the way it handles sexual predators in the wake of the Sjodin case, partly because it was Minnesota that let Rodriguez go free in the first place.
State officials had classified Rodriguez as a Level 3 sex offender, the kind most likely to re-offend, but they opted not to try to commit civilly, which would have let the state hold him indefinitely. Because he served his entire 23-year sentence, he was under no restrictions when he left prison six months before Sjodin's abduction.
Minnesota now keeps more sex offenders locked up longer, and supervises them more closely once they do get out of prison. It has sharply increased the number of sex offenders it commits to security hospitals after their prison sentences run out, and it has adopted tougher sentencing for new offenses, particularly for repeat offenders.
Recent North Dakota sex offender legislation calls for enhanced sentences, less red tape for civil commitment proceedings, tougher penalties for luring and possession of child pornography and expanded registration requirements, including DNA and fingerprints.
The state also completed a user-friendly sex offender Web site that includes detailed information, photographs of offenders, and the ability to sign up for e-mail notices when offenders move into a certain city. The site has had "millions of hits," Stenehjem said.
"I was working on our sex offender Web site before this case, but it really helped for getting the Legislature on board," Stenehjem said.
Wrigley said that while the case shed light on Level 3 sex offenders, some of them still allowed to walk the streets.
"Alfonso Rodriguez is not the first and he's not going to be the last," Wrigley said. "We need to ask ourselves, 'How do we allow that to happen?' To me, it's the irony of the whole thing. Why does a Level 3 sex offender get out of prison?"
Sjodin's family has been active in promoting sex offender legislation. Her mother, Linda Walker, spent three years working on Dru's Law, which created a national sex offender registry. She is a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition, which seeks to stop predatory crimes.
"I just spent some time with Dru's family and went to her grave for the very first time," Wrigley said this week. "The family appreciates so much the public's warm embrace over the years."
Wrigley is likely to be replaced as U.S. attorney when president-elect Barack Obama takes office, but said he still hopes to argue against Rodriguez's appeal before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A hearing date has not been set.
"Five years does nothing to diminish the horror of what he did," Wrigley said. "Now that we've gotten the verdict in this case, it's our job to defend the trial and defend the judge, and we're actively in the middle of that process."