published Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Jodi Arias speaks on own behalf as jury considers death

Jodi Arias looks at her family during the penalty phase of her murder trial at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Ariz., in this file photo.
Jodi Arias looks at her family during the penalty phase of her murder trial at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Ariz., in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PHOENIX — When Jodi Arias addresses the jury in her murder trial one more time, the big question will be whether she pleads for mercy or repeats what she told a TV reporter minutes after her conviction: She would rather be executed than spend the rest of her life in prison.

After nearly five months of testimony in a case that has captured tabloid headlines with tales of sex, lies and violence, Arias’ final words to the jury will soon bring the trial to an end.

Arias’ own attorneys tried to quit the case and asked for a mistrial a day earlier after complaining the trial had become a witch hunt. But the judge swiftly rejected the requests. The defense then said they would call just one witness to testify — Arias herself.

She is set to speak to the jury Tuesday morning. After closing arguments, the jury will begin deliberations and decide whether Arias should be sentenced to life in prison or face the ultimate punishment for the June 2008 shooting and stabbing death of boyfriend Travis Alexander in his suburban Phoenix home.

Arias initially claimed she knew nothing about the slaying. Then she blamed masked intruders before eventually settling on self-defense. Prosecutors argued she killed Alexander in a jealous rage because he wanted to end their relationship and go to Mexico with another woman.

The 32-year-old former waitress spent 18 days on the witness stand during the guilt phase of her trial, describing an abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, dead-end jobs, a shocking sexual relationship with Alexander, and her contention that he had grown physically violent.

Jurors didn’t believe her then, and experts say they likely will show no mercy now.

The victim suffered nearly 30 knife wounds, his throat was slit from ear to ear, and he was shot in the forehead. Arias then dragged him into his shower, where his decomposed body was found days later.

“I think they could put Mother Teresa on there, and it’s not going to spare her life,” said Phoenix defense attorney Mel McDonald, a former judge and federal prosecutor.

San Francisco-area criminal defense lawyer Michael Cardoza said her attorneys’ request to quit the case and the defense decision not to call any witnesses on Arias’ behalf could very well be a strategic move — but one that could backfire.

“She could argue ineffective counsel on appeal, but the fact is, it’s anything but ineffective because what they’re doing is handing her an appeal,” Cardoza said. “So it’s actually very effective counsel.”

Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi renewed his arguments in court on Monday that the judge should have sequestered the jury during the trial and that it should never have been broadcast live.

“The court had a duty to protect Ms. Arias’ right to a fair trial, and failed to do so time and time again,” Nurmi told the judge. “This cannot be a modern-day version of ... a witch trial.”

Judge Sherry Stephens denied the mistrial request, prompting Nurmi to ask that he and co-counsel Jennifer Willmott be allowed to withdraw from the case. The judge swiftly denied that request, as well.

Arias’ attorneys also tried without success to quit after she gave her post-conviction TV interview.

“Longevity runs in my family, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my natural life in one place,” Arias told Fox affiliate KSAZ from a holding cell inside the courthouse. “I believe death is the ultimate freedom, and I’d rather have my freedom as soon as I can get it.”

Last week, Alexander’s brother and sister tearfully described for the jury how his killing had torn their lives apart. This week, the defense planned to call its own witnesses, including a female friend and an ex-boyfriend of Arias, in hopes of convincing the jury her life is worth saving. They scrapped that plan, however, after claiming one key witness refused to testify after receiving death threats, then indicated to the judge Arias would be the only one speaking on her behalf.

While jurors are admonished daily not to pay attention to news accounts of the trial or discuss it with anyone, experts say many details would have been hard to avoid.

“In today’s society, you can’t help but hear or see things whether you’re in the grocery line or walking by a newsstand,” Cardoza said. “It’s naive to think there are no outside influences that reach them.”

Some also speculate that Arias might have been trying to play to jurors with her proclamation in the TV interview that she would rather die, hoping the panel won’t give her what she says she wants.

“She has manipulated this jury before,” said Phoenix defense lawyer Julio Laboy. “She could very well still be manipulating the jury.”

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