updated 8/14/2006 7:15:47 PM ET 2006-08-14T23:15:47

A convicted sex offender accused of killing a college student after abducting her from a shopping center went on trial Monday in North Dakota’s first death penalty case in more than 100 years.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of 22-year-old University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, who disappeared from a Grand Forks mall parking lot in November 2003. He has pleaded not guilty.

A federal prosecutor told jurors in opening statements that Rodriguez stabbed Sjodin, slit her throat and left her to die in a ditch. The defense countered that the case should not be in federal court.

Sjodin’s body was found in April 2004, in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., where Rodriguez, 53, was living with his mother.

Prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty if Rodriguez is convicted, making it the first capital punishment case in North Dakota in more than a century. Neither North Dakota nor Minnesota has a state death penalty.

In an indictment, prosecutors have said Rodriguez held Sjodin “for the purpose of sexually assaulting her.”

Sjodin died of suffocation, the wound to her neck, or possibly from exposure to the weather, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Reisenauer. He said blood in Rodriguez’s car matched Sjodin’s DNA, and hair on her coat matched Rodriguez’s DNA.

Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his brief opening statement, did not say Rodriguez is innocent. But he argued that the case should be in state court, not federal court, and that Sjodin died near the Grand Forks parking lot where she disappeared and not in Minnesota.

“Despite all you’ve heard about this case, it’s the wrong charge in the wrong court,” Hoy said. Prosecutors, he said, cannot prove “when she died, where she died, or the precise cause of her death.”

It took several weeks for a jury to be selected. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson warned jurors not to discuss the case outside the courtroom.

In the three years since Sjodin’s kidnapping, both Minnesota and North Dakota have made major changes in the way they handle sexual predators, keeping more of them locked up longer and supervising them more closely after they get out.

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