NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NORTH DAKOTA · Secret Courts · Aug. 21, 2006
Videotapes used in kidnapping trial won’t be released
Aug. 21, 2006 · The First Amendment does not require a court to give the news media copies of taped interviews of a suspect explaining his alibi to federal investigators four days before he was arrested and charged with a crime, Judge Ralph Erickson of the U.S. District Court in Fargo, North Dakota, ruled Aug. 18.
“These audio tapes relate to the validity of Defendant’s alibi, and captures his own voice as he explains where he was during the time frame of Ms. Sjodin’s disappearance,” Erickson wrote. “If there were to be a second trial as a result of an appeal, having this sort of tape played in the media could create prejudice for a second trial.”
Forum Communications, which owns the Grand Forks Herald, Forum newspaper, and several radio and television stations throughout North Dakota, requested access to tapes that were played at the trial of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. Aug. 16.
Rodriguez is being charged with kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student who was 22 when she disappeared Nov. 11, 2003. Rodriguez, a registered sex offender who had recently completed a 23-year prison term, was interviewed as a suspect by investigators Nov. 26.
According to an article by the Grand Forks Herald, the interview recordings demonstrate that Rodriguez was under growing pressure to explain holes in his alibi for the time Sjodin disappeared.
Rodriguez was arrested and charged with her abduction in December 2004, and in April 2004, her body was discovered near where Rodriguez lived. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, making this the first North Dakota death penalty case in over a century.
Though the court will not release copies of the tape recordings, the media may get transcripts of them and may listen to the audio tapes at the courthouse. “If representatives of the media wanted to be present when the tapes were played, they had that opportunity,” Erickson explained.
Noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, whose decisions bind North Dakota’s federal trial courts, has not adopted a strong presumption in favor of access to court exhibits, Erickson concluded it is “best to err on the side of protecting a defendant’s right to a fair trial.” During jury selection, potential jurors indicated they had heard others’ opinions about the case, Erickson explained, and it is still possible that people who heard the tapes broadcast in the media would try to influence jurors based on their impressions of the recordings.
Several steps have been taken to provide Rodriguez a fair trial in this heavily publicized case, including moving the trial from Grand Forks, where Sjodin was abducted, to Fargo. Also, Erickson called a jury pool larger than the normal size, increased the number of juror disqualifications for the defense, and empaneled four alternate jurors.
Attorneys for Forum Communication have not decided whether they will appeal Erickson’s decision.
(United States v. Rodriguez, Forum Communication’s Counsel: Steven A. Johnson, Vogel Law Firm, Fargo, N.D.) — SB