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Prosecution: Rodriguez's reading habits cast doubt on intellectual disability claim

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. listens at his bail hearing on a kidnapping charge in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks on Dec. 4, 2003. Forum file photo

FARGO — A psychiatrist on Friday, Feb. 1, added his voice to those of other experts who claim the man convicted in the 2003 kidnapping and killing of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin has an intellectual disability, a diagnosis that if accepted by the court would make Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. ineligible for execution.

Arturo Silva, a forensic psychiatrist, testified in federal court here that in his opinion, Rodriguez has deficiencies in his ability to cope with the demands of everyday life that are so extensive they support a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

His views were challenged by Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer, who suggested Rodriguez's intellectual shortcomings, as testified to by Silva and other expert defense witnesses, were being overstated.

Reisenauer read from a document in which Rodriguez talked to an interviewer about his reading habits in prison, an exchange that appeared to show that Rodriguez read a lot of books and could discuss their authors and story lines at some length.

Reisenauer also cited a document from 1978 which contained a reference to Rodriguez having obtained a high school equivalency certificate while he was incarcerated.

Silva said he has never seen documentation for such a certificate, but he said people with an intellectual disability can read and have other strengths while still having enough coping deficiencies to meet the diagnostic threshold for intellectual disability, which in the past was referred to as mental retardation.

Rodriguez was sentenced to death following a 2006 trial in which he was convicted of kidnapping and killing Sjodin, a University of North Dakota college student who was abducted from outside a mall in Grand Forks.

Sjodin's remains were found near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez lived at the time.

Rodriguez's arrest in Sjodin's death came shortly after he was furloughed from prison, where he had spent decades for convictions for sexual assaults.

Attorneys for Rodriguez have filed papers in federal court seeking to have his conviction and sentence overturned in the 2003 case based on a claim that false testimony was presented during trial. They also claim Rodriguez is intellectually disabled and therefore cannot be executed.

Friday's proceedings were part of a hearing that began Monday, Jan. 28, and which is expected to continue into next week with testimony from mental health experts called by the prosecution.

Experts testifying for the defense have focused on evidence of Rodriguez's mental deficiencies, including a record of failing classes and having to repeat grade levels in school and a somewhat lengthy list of IQ tests given to Rodriguez starting in his early years and continuing to as recently as last summer.

His IQ numbers include an IQ score of 74 in 1965, when he was 12, and a score of 87 obtained prior to his trial in 2006.

The latter number has since been revisited by defense experts who say it should be adjusted downward.

In any event, while mental health experts have generally considered an IQ score of around 70 as the threshold for mental retardation/intellectual disability, experts testifying for the defense this past week stressed that when it comes to the latest diagnostic procedures, IQ scores are only one facet to consider when determining intellectual disability.

They said identifying deficiencies in ability to cope with life's demands has become just as important, if not more important, as IQ scores in determining intellectual disability.

An IQ score in the 90 to 110 range is considered average, with only a small fraction of people having an IQ below 70 or above 130, according to online sources.

Dave Olson
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