Jodi Arias Faces Her Fate as Jury Begins Deliberations
Christine Pelisek on how likely the accused boyfriend killer is to get the death penalty.
Closing arguments wrapped up Friday with accused killer Jodi Arias’s lawyer asking jurors to keep an open mind about his client, even if they weren’t big fans of the former blonde bombshell portrayed by the prosecutor as a manipulative liar and a killer.
After four months of testimony, it is now up to the jury to decide the fate of the 32-year-old California waitress and budding photographer. Arias, who intermittently wept through the two days of final statements, claims she killed 30-year-old Travis Alexander in self-defense when he attacked her at his Phoenix home after a day of sexcapades. Prosecutors argued that Arias meticulously planned to bump off the Mormon businessman and motivational speaker after she learned he was ending their tumultuous affair and taking another woman on a vacation, and took her first steps toward that end by stealing a .25 caliber handgun—the same caliber weapon used in the killing—from her grandparents’ home in Northern California a week before the slaying.
“Mr. Alexander had tired of her,” said prosecutor Juan Martinez to the eight men and four women on the jury. “He knew of the history, he knew of the stalking behavior, and he was done with her.”
Arias, he said, “couldn’t let him go.”
Alexander, who was found dead in the shower in June 2008, was stabbed 27 times, had his throat slit, and was shot in the head. “She just gutted him,” said Martinez, who likened Arias to an obsessed stalker and sociopath. Adding later in his rebuttal: “It is the state’s view that nothing indicates it was anything other than a slaughter.”
Arias’s defense attorney, Kirk Nurmi, who admitted that “nine days out of 10, I don’t like Jodi Arias,” argued that the state’s premeditation theory made no sense. Alexander and Arias’s relationship, he said, was defined by “sex, lies, and dirty little secrets.”
Alexander’s death, he said, was “a sad, symbolic ending to a toxic relationship.”
Jurors have a wide array of options to choose from, including finding Arias guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, which carries a penalty of death, second-degree murder, or the lesser charge of manslaughter. If the jury convicts her of premeditated murder, Arias would join three other women—including a baby killer—on Arizona’s Death Row. If convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, Arias could serve far less time in prison: seven to 12 years. She has already spent 1,700 days behind bars.
Some court watchers believe that the violence of the attack and her constantly changing account of events will play a huge role as the jury attempts to weigh the weeks of testimony and evidence.
“There are a couple of dozen stab wounds, a slit throat, and a gun shot,” says Manhattan criminal defense attorney Stuart Slotnick. “It is really difficult for a jury to swallow and to feel comfortable saying not guilty. It is a tough one to explain ... It was clearly a crime of passion. You can see it by the dozens of stab wounds inflicted.”
It doesn’t help, says Arizona criminal defense attorney Marc Victor, that nine of the stab wounds were located on Alexander’s back. “It is probably the most damning piece of evidence for the state against the self-defense theory,” he says. “It really hurts.”
Arias initially denied knowing anything about the murder but later blamed it on masked intruders. Two years after her arrest, she admitted killing him but said it was in self-defense when he attacked her after a day of sex. During that time, she was repeatedly caught lying on tape to police investigators, and even proclaimed her innocence on national television—all of which was later played for the jury during her four-month trial.
“She put herself at a huge disadvantage by opening her mouth,” says Victor. “It was a great mistake on her part. She looks horrible.”
Indeed she does, agrees criminal-defense attorney Mark Geragos, whose book Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works...and Sometimes Doesn’t was released in April. “There is no getting around it,” he says. “It is a challenge. I am sure the prosecution’s closing arguments about her lies will echo in the jury room.”
“Because the jury got to see the videos they saw the kind of liar she is,” adds Slotnick. “For the defense it is a big problem.”
Large swaths of the trial centered on Arias’s mental state. Defense attorneys claimed that Arias suffered from posttraumatic stress, amnesia, and battered woman’s syndrome from the verbal and physical lashings she allegedly endured at the hands of Alexander, whom they described as a womanizer and closet pedophile. Arias claimed she had once caught him pleasuring himself while looking at photos of a little boy wearing only underwear.
During closing arguments, Nurmi offered up Arias to the jury, portraying her as a beleaguered woman who had finally snapped when a moment of violence went too far. That moment, Arias claims, occurred shortly after she dropped Alexander’s camera while she was taking pictures of him in the shower, and he flipped. “Snapping in a sudden heat of passion could account for much of what we see through the various pictures,” he argued. “Jodi Arias very well may have lost control ... There is nothing about what happened on June 4 in the bathroom that looked planned.”
Geragos says her mental state will definitely be a big point of discussion during deliberations. “That was where the battle was in the courtroom and, if any, in jury deliberation. It isn’t a who-dunnit. It is a why-dunnit.”
But Phoenix forensic psychiatrist Dr. Steven Pitt says the jury won’t get bogged down with the dueling theories of Arias’s mental state and will just stick with the facts of the case. “I think the jury is going to view the testimony about battered woman’s syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder as the distraction it was,” he says. “They will make short shrift of this testimony because the defense never convincingly explained how these conditions, if present, were responsible for the choices Arias made. The jury is going to cut to the chase and like a laser-guided missile they are going to zero in on the physical evidence, the statements Arias made, and her behavior at the time of the offense and following the offense.”
Prosecutors, on the other hand, have long scoffed at Arias’s claims of physical and mental abuse, and argued that she was driven to violence when she realized Alexander wanted to end the affair. The plan to kill Alexander was set in motion shortly after a vicious round of text messages between the two, they said.
“I want you to understand how evil I think you are,” Alexander wrote in a text message that Martinez showed jurors. “This is a meticulous approach to premeditation,” argued Martinez. “This is a meticulous approach to killing.”
Arias’s likability will also play a role in whether she lives or dies, says Slotnick. “If someone likes you, they give you the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “You don’t want to have the fate of your life in the hands of someone who doesn’t like you.”
Geragos says that Nurmi’s unorthodox strategy of keeping Arias on the stand for 18 days, which included stories of bedroom antics and erotic adventures, may have just saved her from the needle. “I don’t think she is necessarily likable, but I think it is difficult to kill someone when you have so much interaction.”
Geragos also points out that although jurors submitted during the trial over 100 questions grilling Arias on her claims that she couldn’t remember anything after she shot Alexander, and why she didn’t call the police, they referred to her by her first name.
“That is significant,” he says. “The jurors didn’t call her defendant or Ms. Arias—they were calling her Jodi. I think there will be some people arguing for her that life is a worse fate than death.”