- Associated Press - Friday, April 8, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A federal judge says a new legal team he approved for a man who killed a University of North Dakota student in Minnesota is needed to cut down on expenses for the defendant’s appeal of his death sentence.

Lawyers for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. asked for the change in his legal representation because of staffing changes in the federal system and the Minnesota federal public defender’s office. Among the changes, Katherine Menendez, the lead counsel for the case who was based in Minneapolis, is now a federal magistrate judge.

The 63-year-old Rodriguez, of Crookston, Minnesota, was convicted of kidnapping and killing Dru Sjodin, of Pequot Lakes, Minnesota. Authorities have said Rodriguez, a convicted sex offender, kidnapped the 21-year-old UND student from a shopping mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 2003 and then raped, beat and stabbed her in Crookston. It was North Dakota’s first federal death penalty case.

Rodriguez, who sits on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, filed what is considered his final appeal more than five years ago and his legal team then included prominent death penalty attorneys Joseph Margulies and Michael Wiseman. Federal prosecutors argued against the switch in lawyers, calling it a “disguised delay tactic” that could set back the case for more than a year.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said in an order filed late Thursday that the Minnesota federal public defender’s office doesn’t have enough money to pay the attorneys on Rodriguez’s former legal team, who were charging by the hour. The case will now be handled by the Federal Community Defender Office, or FCDO, in Pennsylvania.

“Allowing the withdrawal and appointing the requested substitute counsel is in the interest of justice,” Erickson wrote.

Neil Fulton, head of the federal public defender’s office for the Dakotas, said the FCDO has an “exceptional” unit that does appeals like the one filed by Rodriguez.

“Zero concern about adequate resources going forward,” Fulton said. “Mr. Rodriguez remains in excellent, if different, hands.”

Federal prosecutors in North Dakota did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

The case, tried by then-U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who is now North Dakota’s lieutenant governor, resulted in tougher laws for sex offenders on the state and federal levels.

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