Court Report

02.17.13

Jodi Arias’s Baffling Defense Strategy

On trial for murdering her boyfriend, Jodi Arias has spent six days on the stand discussing their sex life in graphic detail. Christine Pelisek on why the strategy is likely to backfire.

After six long days on the witness stand, 32-year-old Jodi Arias has still not discussed the day she allegedly murdered her boyfriend.

Instead, in a strategy that has many court watchers scratching their heads, much of the testimony has been about her raunchy sexual relationship with Travis Alexander, the Mormon businessman and motivational speaker she is accused of stabbing 27 times and leaving for dead in the shower of his Arizona apartment.

The defense team even played an explicit audiotape for the jury, in which the couple discusses their erotic adventures, with Alexander praising Arias for her apparent enthusiasm. “I like how you play any role you need to,” he tells her.

Now facing the death penalty if convicted, Arias is attempting to play the role of a woman caught in a relationship that turned abusive and pushed her to the brink.

The defense had no choice but to put her on the stand, says Mel McDonald, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, where the trial is being held. “At least people can hear her talk and see her cry,” he says. “They have to show that something had to happen to make this sweet, demure girl become a monster. You have to convince the jury that she is not a dark person—that she became the dark person because of what he did to her.”

One of Arias’s more stunning allegations was that she once saw Alexander pleasuring himself while looking at photos of a little boy wearing only underwear. "It seemed like one of those dreams where something is really off, but you can't figure it out,” she testified. “I just ran. I didn't know how to react.”

Arias said she refused to return Alexander’s calls after the incident, but ultimately felt bad for him. “I’ve heard in the past that usually people who have problems like that were hurt when they were children, and I kept thinking, what if he was hurt when he was a kid?” she said. “It made me angry to think of him as a kid and somebody violating him."

That testimony could backfire, cautions Manhattan criminal defense attorney Stuart Slotnick, unless Arias’s team has evidence to back up a claim of pedophilia. “I think the jury will see it as a desperate attempt to try and impugn his character,” Slotnick says.

Arias already has an uphill battle in establishing credibility, legal analysts say, most prominently because of the brutality of the crime. Friends found Alexander dead, with his throat slit, 27 stab wounds, and a bullet in his head, in 2008.

Initially, Arias, who dated Alexander for several months and then continued a sexual relationship with him after they broke up, denied having any knowledge about his murder. But she changed her tune when investigators told her that they found her hair and a bloody palm print at the murder scene. She admitted she had been there, but only as a witness to his slaying by masked intruders.

She changed her story for a third time after she was arrested in July 2008, claiming that she killed Alexander in self-defense.

Now, the crux of her testimony seems to be that Alexander had a history of abusing her. During one particularly violent encounter, Arias said, Alexander broke her finger. "He went to kick me again, and I put my hand out ... to block his foot, and it clipped my hand and hit my finger,” she said, showing the jury a bent finger.

She didn’t file a police report or go to the hospital, she said, because she didn’t want to get Alexander into trouble.

Arias also painted her ex-boyfriend as something of a womanizer, testifying that she discovered he was sleeping with other women while they were dating—and that the two slept together while he had another girlfriend. “I felt really bad, because I knew what it was like when I found out he was seeing a bunch of girls on the side ... And now he had a girlfriend, and I was one of the girls he was seeing on the side that his girlfriend didn't know about,” she testified.

Arizona forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt doesn’t think such tactics will work with the jury. “‘Woe is me’ defenses are often boring and seldom, if ever, effective,” he says. “I suspect that Jodi Arias has effectively put the jury to sleep.”

But the specter of the death penalty may be part of the defense team’s calculus, says McDonald. “What they are trying to find is one or two jurors that will hang up on the death penalty ... Because of some of the creepy things he has done, I am not going to put her to death.”

The audiotape in question was part of a lengthy and steamy conversation recorded less than a month before Alexander’s death. At one point during the recording, Alexander tells Arias about his desire to tie her to a tree and then “put it in her ass.”

“It is so debasing, I like it,” Arias says on the tape. “You are so full of ideas. We have gotten so creative in the past. You are really a wellspring of ideas.” In court, she testified that Alexander wanted her to wear a Little Red Riding Hood costume during the encounter.

Arias told the riveted jury that she even looked for the right spot to fulfill his fantasy, in the woods near her grandparents’ home in northern California.

That exchange could come back to haunt her. “I don’t know why they would have her on the stand talking about her sexual experiences in detail,” says Phoenix image consultant Devy Walker. “There is no benefit. I think her counsel made a big mistake. They are saying she didn’t enjoy the sex, but she remembers every detail. The people here are calling it the 50 shades of sick.”

Arias’s trial resumes Tuesday, with the prosecution no doubt eager to take over for cross-examination.