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May 15, 2013

Arias back in court as jury ponders death option

PHOENIX — Jodi Arias heads back to court Wednesday as jurors consider whether the death penalty should be an option for sentencing the former waitress after convicting her of first-degree murder last week.

Arias spent the weekend on suicide watch before being transferred back to the all-female Estrella Jail on Monday where she will remain held until her sentencing.

The so-called “aggravation” phase of the trial is set for Wednesday, during which jurors will deliberate one more time to weigh the death penalty option.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez must convince the panel that the murder was committed in an especially cruel, heinous and depraved manner. This phase will be a mini-trial of sorts, as both sides call witnesses to present testimony to jurors — the defense in an effort to spare Arias’ life, the prosecution to at least have a shot at a death sentence.

Martinez will likely call the county medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the victim to explain to jurors how Travis Alexander did not die calmly and fought for his life as evidenced by the numerous defensive wounds on his hands and feet. The lead detective on the case also will likely testify about the crime scene in an effort to show jurors just how much blood was spread around Alexander’s bathroom and bedroom as he struggled to fend off the attack.

It wasn’t clear who the defense would call to testify in an effort to get the death penalty off the table.

If jurors find the killing fits the definition of cruel and heinous, the panel will recommend either life in prison or death during the next and final penalty phase of the trial.

If the panel finds no aggravating factors exist, jurors will be dismissed and the judge will determine whether Arias should spend the rest of her life in prison or be sentenced to 25 years with the possibility of release.

“I think this jury is going to listen to everything, but they’re going to come back very quickly and find that indeed the state has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the crime was committed in an especially cruel, heinous and depraved manner,” Phoenix criminal defense lawyer Julio Laboy said. “This was a cruel death and one in which he (Alexander) knew he was dying.”

Arias stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times, shot him in the forehead and slit his throat from ear to ear, leaving the motivational speaker and businessman nearly decapitated before she dragged his mutilated body into his shower where friends found him about five days later.

The 32-year-old Arias admitted killing her onetime boyfriend Alexander on June 4, 2008, at his suburban Phoenix home. She initially denied any involvement then later blamed masked intruders. Two years after her arrest, she said it was self-defense when the victim attacked her after a day of sex.

Prosecutors said she planned the killing in a jealous rage as Alexander wanted to end their affair and was planning to take a trip to Mexico with another woman.

Testimony began in early January. The jury reached its verdict last Wednesday after about 15 hours of deliberations over four days.

All 12 jurors — eight men and four women — unanimously agreed the killing was premeditated.

Minutes after her conviction last week, Arias granted an interview to Fox affiliate KSAZ while in a holding cell at the courthouse, only adding to the circus-like environment surrounding the trial, which has become a cable TV sensation with its graphic tales of sex, lies and violence.  

“Longevity runs in my family, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my natural life in one place,” a tearful Arias said in the interview. “I believe death is the ultimate freedom, and I’d rather have my freedom as soon as I can get it.”  

Despite Arias’ comments that she would rather die than be in prison for life, she cannot choose the death penalty. It is up to the jury to recommend a sentence.

Officials with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday the agency would not grant anymore media interviews with Arias after receiving a court order prohibiting authorities from facilitating the requests. The order came shortly after a closed door meeting with the judge and attorneys in the case.

If jurors on Wednesday find Arias’ crime deserves consideration of the death penalty, the trial will move into yet another — and final — phase, during which prosecutors will call witnesses, including members of Alexander’s family, aimed at convincing the panel she should face the ultimate punishment. Arias’ attorneys, meanwhile, will also call witnesses, likely members of her family, in an attempt to gain sympathy from jurors to spare her life.

“This case is not over. There’s a lot left and without question, victory still awaits the defense if they can save her life and keep her off death row,” Laboy said. “It was such a difficult set of facts and circumstances for her defense to overcome, from her multiple lies to the crime scene to the physical evidence ... If despite all of those things, they can save her life, they’ve still won.”

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