Rodriguez's mother pleads for son's life

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2006 - 11:26 PM

Dolores Rodriguez said the only time she is happy is when she visits "Tito," who is now facing the death penalty.

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Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

FARGO, N.D. -- She calls him Tito, and she calls him "a wonderful son, kind, loving."

A tearful Dolores Rodriguez told jurors Tuesday that they should spare her son's life. She will suffer if he is executed.

"I'm happy when I talk to him, when I visit him," she said. "That's the only time I'm happy."

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was convicted Aug. 30 of kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old college student from Pequot Lakes, Minn.

Jurors last week declared the 53-year-old eligible for the death penalty. Now they're considering whether he should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without parole.

Led gently by defense attorney Richard Ney, Dolores Rodriguez told jurors about the family's life in the Crookston, Minn., area, including difficulties Alfonso suffered as a child because of poverty, racist taunts and environmental conditions in the farm fields that surrounded their rural home.

In cross-examination, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley sought to demonstrate that, in contrast to Alfonso Rodriguez's difficult childhood, his mother had provided him with a comfortable home and new car after his release from prison in May 2003.

"He was allowed to come back and engage in family life," Wrigley said, "free to come and go as he pleased" -- unlike Sjodin, who was abducted, sexually assaulted and killed, her body left in a ravine.

Much of the defense effort Tuesday to save Rodriguez's life involved complex testimony from a neuropsychiatrist and a toxicologist, who explained how exposure to farm chemicals commonly used in the Red River Valley in the 1950s could have caused mental defects in Rodriguez -- defects that might explain his violence against women and warrant a life sentence, not death.

But the defense started with a mother's story, illustrated with pictures of young Tito.

She was born in Texas, one of nine children, she said, as her son watched and listened from the defense table.

She was not quite 17 when she married Alfonso Rodriguez Sr., a Texas farm worker, and she accompanied him on his annual trips to the Red River Valley. She worked in the potato and sugar beet fields, too, including when she was pregnant. The house they shared with two other migrant families was surrounded by fields.

Those acres were routinely sprayed with pesticides that were later banned because of their toxicity. Clothes she hung on a line were often sticky from drifting chemicals, she said. There was no running water in the house, no electricity, only a wood stove and a well. The children scoured a garbage dump for toys.

Daughter Sylvia was born in Crookston in 1951, Alfonso Jr. in Texas in 1953. There were three more children.

Dolores Rodriguez said she had cancer 16 years ago. Alfonso Sr. had cancer, too, and a brain tumor that caused his death in 1992. Alfonso Sr. and Tito had hand tremors.

Tito was born troubled, his mother said, crying all the time, rejecting her breast milk. He was late to start walking and using words.

In 1962, the family settled permanently in Crookston so the children's education wouldn't be disrupted by the annual migration.

"The other children used to call them 'dirty Mexican' and other names," Dolores said. "They used to cry about going to school. Tito wanted to go back to Texas, but there was no work there for his dad."

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