Jodi Arias: Hell Hath No Fury – Commentary
May 8, 2013: GUILTY OF MURDER IN THE FIRST DEGREE. The Wild About Trial lawyers are not exactly surprised, we have to say. Our first clue was the comparatively brief jury deliberation, a mere three days as compared to the months of testimony. Generally verdicts that favor defendants take a little longer, as a kind of “Twelve Angry Men” situation develops in the jury room.
All twelve jurors found Jodi Arias guilty of premeditating the killing of Travis Alexander. Five also believed Arias was guilty of felony murder, that is, a murder that occurs while another felony — robbery, in this case — is ongoing.
This wild ride is not over yet, Trial Junkies. Coming attractions include the aggravation phase of the proceedings, which will give the jury the opportunity to consider whether Alexander’s murder was especially cruel, heinous or depraved, or if it was “committed in a cold, calculated manner without pretense of moral or legal justification.” It will be similar to a mini-trial; however, the jurors can take into account evidence heard during the chief trial.
After that the penalty phase begins, when the jury will hear evidence on whether or not Arias deserves the death penalty. Both sides will present evidence. Nurmi will undoubtedly argue that his client is less culpable given the abusive relationship she had with Alexander, and should he successfully show that Arias “was under unusual and substantial duress” he may be able to spare his client from execution. Martinez will reiterate the gruesomeness of the murder, and the jury will decide.
One interesting thing about both of these upcoming mini-trials is that the rules of evidence are relaxed, so we will probably hear a lot of new information that could not be brought out during the main trial because it’s evidentiary value was in question. Expect even more scandal, as the door has been opened for hearsay testimony.
May 2, 2013: After weeks and weeks of testimony, including 18 days of Arias herself on the stand, this trial is almost at an end. For the lawyers, the marathon is almost over. The jury, however, is still slogging through.
Before closing arguments today, Judge Stephens took some time to look the jurors in the eyes and instruct them on how their decision-making process should unfold. It can be really confusing to be a juror, especially in a case that is as information-heavy as this one. Judge Stephens laid out the road map of the information they can consider, the information they must ignore, and the verdicts they can reach.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
First of all, the judge was explicit. The jurors can only consider the facts in evidence. They cannot let rumors, hearsay or facts that they might have learned from another source (news media, Wild About Trial, Wild’s Twitter account) influence their decision-making. If it was not stated in open court without objection, then they cannot consider it.
Secondly, Judge Stephens told then they could not let their prejudices or sympathies come into play. The key here is “Just the facts, ma’am.” As a juror, whether you love Jodi Arias or hate Jodi Arias needs to be completely irrelevant. Now, whether or not it is even possible for the average juror to approach deliberation that way is another issue. It seems impossible to leave all prejudices and sympathies at the door in this case, especially considering how much time the jury spent with Arias. They know her well, and we are certain that each juror has a definite opinion about her.
Judge Stephens was also clear about how much weight the jury should give each person’s testimony. She was clear that police officers and experts are no more or less credible than regular people. She told the jury it was up to them to decide how much of the testimony they thought was believable, truthful or important to the facts of this case.
The next point Judge Stephens made is absolutely huge: Jodi Arias does not need to prove she is innocent. She did not need to present an affirmative defense. She did not need to testify. She could have sat pretty and batted her eyes for the prosecution’s entire presentation and then just said, “that’s it, you didn’t prove I’m guilty” and we all could have been spared the drama of her testimony. Choosing to argue self-defense does not strengthen the prosecution’s case. The prosecution is in the same place they were in weeks ago: Did they prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jodi Arias killed Travis Alexander? They provided a lot of circumstantial evidence that points in that direction, but did they PROVE it?
Not only is the State of Arizona required to prove Arias guilty, but they must also prove her guilty of every “element” of the crime. Each crime is broken down into component parts in a legal definition, and the jury must look at each component part to determine whether Arias is guilty. For example, the jury might find that Arias caused Alexander to die, but they might be split on whether she premeditated the death. In that case, they would not be able to convict her within the legal definition of first-degree murder, and they would have to look to a different offense, like second-degree murder or manslaughter.
So let’s dive into those legal definitions.
First Degree Murder (Also called Murder 1 and Premeditated Murder)
To convict Arias of first degree murder, the jury would have to unanimously agree that Arias (1) caused the death of Travis Alexander; (2) that Arias planned the murder.
Second Degree Murder (Also called Murder 2 and Heat of Passion Murder)
To convict Arias of second-degree murder, the jury would have to unanimously agree that Arias (1) intentionally caused Travis Alexander’s death. There is no premeditation requirement in a second-degree murder verdict. If the jury splits on premeditation, this is very likely the verdict.
To convict Arias of manslaughter, the jury would have to unanimously agree that Jodi Arias unintentionally caused Travis Alexander’s death.
First Degree Felony Murder
To convict Arias of felony murder, the jury would have to unanimously agree that Jodi Arias intended to commit burglary (the legal definition of burglary is that Arias (1) entered a residence (2) with the intent to commit burglary).
The judge also gave the jury an instruction about how to treat self-defense. Basically, this is how that breaks down. After the jury has made a decision about guilt on one of the possible crimes listed above, then they must decide whether or not Arias acted in self-defense. So, for example, if they find that Arias was factually not guilty of any of those crimes, then they never have to make a decision about self-defense. But if they do find her guilty of one of the crimes the judge listed, then they need to examine whether they found she acted in self defense.
To find that Arias acted in self-defense, the jury must either unanimously agree that a reasonable person in Jodi Arias’ situation would have acted in the same way to preserve her own safety or, if the jury unanimously finds that Arias fits the description of a battered woman.
March 8, 2013: Jodi Arias had over 200 questions to field from the jurors, the final cap to her weeks of testimony.
We’ve discussed before the somewhat rare practice in Arizona of allowing jurors to submit questions. Some of the Wild About Trial legal staff thinks that permitting juror questions turns the jurors into lawyers and takes them out of their appropriate role. Some of us believe that juror questions are a helpful tool to allow jurors to crystallize their understanding of the facts of the case.
The questions the jury submitted for Arias showed that both of those analyses are correct. Many of the questions were simply trying to get at the heart of the matter and trying to discern the truth out of Arias’ vague answers and inconsistent testimony. Some of the questions were downright confrontational, as if trying to nail Arias on cross examination.
Some of the questions that served no purpose but to mock Arias included:
“Why were the laws of attraction so important to follow but the law of chastity was not?”
“How do you remember so many sexual encounters but don’t remember stabbing Travis and dragging his body?”
“Did you ever see a doctor for your memory issues?”
“How do you determine when you will tell the truth and when you will not tell the truth?”
We are surprised that the judge admitted these questions. When judges are considering whether a question posed to a witness is appropriate, they need to look at two important factors: whether the question is relevant, and whether the question unduly prejudices the defendant.
These questions were not relevant in the sense that they did not elicit new information and did not explain previously submitted evidence. The sole purpose of these questions was to be nasty to Arias.
If the prosecutor had asked those questions that would be one thing because it’s the prosecutor’s job to get in a hostile witness’s face. It was improper for the judge to allow the jury to assume a confrontational role against the defendant.
Most of the other questions the jurors posed were relevant, however, and provided an interesting lens on the jury’s thought process. They asked why Arias had never telephoned for help before during their abusive relationship. They asked why she had not reported Alexander to the police if she believed he had pedophilic tendencies. It seemed that some of the jurors are not convinced by Arias’ testimony that she was abused by Alexander.
They also asked about her road trip, and it was clear that they believed she was trying to cover up her tracks on the way to Mesa, not just on her way back from Mesa. They asked about the gas cans in her car, and why she filled up gas in California when she testified that she took gas cans to take advantage of the cheaper gas across the border. That would tend to show that at least some of the jurors believe she premeditated the murder.
Trial will not begin again until March 13, giving everyone a week off.
Day ten of Arias on the stand, witness fatigue
February 27, 2012: Is anyone else sick of Arias’ testimony yet? It’s hard to believe that her time on the witness stand has dragged out this long, and yet here we are.
It seemed like one of the reasons Nurmi kept his client on the stand for as long as he did was to demystify Arias and make her relatable to the jury. The reasoning was that if the jurors spend enough time with Arias, they would realize that she was the victim in all this, that she acted in self-defense, that she was a nice girl after all, and that Travis was a monster who tied her up and made her do deviant sex acts.
If that method worked on direct examination, Martinez’s cross examination has effectively ruined it. The longer Arias stays under the prosecutor’s questioning, evading questions, refusing to answer because the questions are too vague, the more frustrated the jury becomes, and the more their sympathy for Arias wanes.
Martinez’s line of questioning could be a lot more specific and precise. It’s our opinion that he leaves Arias too much wiggle room and that he needs to work on his witness control. Arias should be an easy witness to nail down, but she keeps evading him. A veteran prosecutor like Martinez really should be better at this.
It could be that Martinez — like all of us — is suffering witness fatigue.
After spending ten days with Arias, what do you think the jurors think of her? What do you think of her?
Arias’ controversial testimony: Alexander turned on by young boys
February 12, 2013: The big reveal in yesterday’s trial was Arias’ testimony that she walked in on her ex-lover masturbating to a picture of a young boy wearing only underwear. The attorneys debated the admissibility of the evidence before Arias testified, probably because the testimony is so incendiary that it could alter the jury’s ability to remain unbiased in their deliberation.
The judge found that the information about Alexander’s pedophilia could come in as relevant evidence of Alexander’s character.
Important facts about a victim’s character (lawyers usually call this just “character evidence”) are often admissible in criminal trials because they can provide context for the crime committed against the victim. Character evidence is particularly common in cases that focus on a mutually violent relationship.
In this case, Nurmi is using Arias’ testimony to do his darndest to show that Alexander was a creep and a bad guy. According to Arias’ testimony, Alexander liked little boys and beat his girlfriends. It feels like Nurmi is daring the jury: “Are you really going to side with a pedophile over this poor woman, this victim of domestic violence?”
After the prosecution’s case against Arias, which painted a clear picture of her guilt, this is probably the last best chance Nurmi has for a verdict other than first degree murder.
Arias takes the stand
February 5, 2013: Trial junkies have watched with grim fascination as Jodi Arias testified in her own defense yesterday and today. On direct examination her testimony seemed rehearsed, even coached, and the information she gave often seem irrelevant to the larger case at hand. Prosecutor Martinez cooled it on the objections and let her talk.
As lawyers, we cannot possibly overstate the importance of calling the defendant to testify. It is a rarely-used defense tactic, and there’s no way Nurmi would have put Arias on the stand without a great deal of careful thought and planning.
The reason defendants rarely testify is because doing so exposes the defendant to cross examination. Once the defense lawyer has questioned Arias, the prosecutor can also question her. (And, apparently, Arizona’s trial laws being what they are, the jury will be permitted to ask her questions as well!)
For Arias, cross-examination will be brutal. You can bet Martinez will grill her mercilessly on her every inconsistent statement, her bizarre behavior after Alexander’s killing, and the most raw, private details of her personal life, including her sexual relationships. Martinez will leave no stone unturned in exposing Arias as a wicked woman.
So why did Nurmi decide to risk it? Why put Arias on the stand to begin with? Honestly, it’s tough for us to say. Nurmi’s direct examination of Arias was so scattered, we often did not understand the point he was trying to make with her testimony.
It seemed like he thought he had a good battered woman’s syndrome defense because Nurmi went into her past abusive relationships somewhat extensively. Arias would be the only person who could testify to the facts of her previous relationships, so perhaps Nurmi believed that defense was important enough to open Arias up to attack on cross-examination.
Why Jurors Can Ask Questions of Witnesses in the Jodi Arias Murder Trial
January 29, 2013: If you were a juror in the Jodi Arias murder trial, what questions would you ask of the witnesses you’ve seen? If Arias testifies herself, what questions would you ask of her?
On the eighth day of trial, the jury submitted several handwritten questions to Judge Sherry Stephens after the testimony of Esteban Flores, the lead detective in the Travis Alexander murder investigation:
“When interviewing Mr. Alexander’s roommates, did they ever show concern for his extended absence?”
“Did you ever check into their alibis?”
“Did Mr. Alexander have another boarder living in the house (and) were fingerprints of the boarder taken to see if they matched the scene?”
These questions have provided insight into what the jury is thinking about the case. But why are jurors allowed to ask the witnesses questions in the first place? For those people accustomed to watching television court dramas, you may be asking yourself this very question.
Traditionally jurors are not permitted to question witnesses themselves. However, a small number of states have changed their court rules to allow juror questions, often with the requirement that juror questions be submitted in writing to allow both the defense and prosecution an opportunity to object. Arizona, where Jodi Arias is being tried for murder, is one of the states that now allows juror questions to witnesses.
According to the official website for the State of Arizona Judicial Branch: “Arizona has pioneered many successful jury reform measures, such as jurors being allowed to ask written questions of witnesses in the court; jurors being allowed to discuss evidence (in civil cases) during the course of the trial; juror note taking and juror notebooks in lengthy or complex trials and supplemental pay for long trials.”
Although the rule has been adopted in a few states, it is still somewhat unique in criminal law. As avid trial junkies know, the prosecution must fully prove that the defendant is guilty in order to win their case. By allowing jurors to question the witnesses, the prosecution has the ability to patch up holes in the evidence. It also provides lawyers on both sides with a window to the jury’s perspective on the case, and good lawyers will then tailor their case around that perspective.
For example, in this case the jury wanted to know more about other potential suspects. Arias’ lawyer would be wise to keep coming back to the idea that the investigation into other potential suspects was not thorough enough, thus Arias might not be guilty.
By giving jurors the chance to ask witnesses questions, the roles in the trial are reversed. Gone are the days when juries were passive observers, relying only on the information provided by the attorneys. In states that allow jurors to question witnesses, the jurors take on the role of the lawyer and become active participants in the trial.
This role reversal might be dangerous if jurors become personally involved in the case. Imagine a scenario where a juror poses a question, and the defense objects to the question based on a legal technicality. The juror then might feel personally disappointed that his question was not answered and might take out that disappointment on the lawyer who objected, thus prejudicing the defendant. It seems to us at Wild About Trial that a judge who permits juror questions must proceed with utmost caution.
January 18, 2013: The prosecution called their last witness today and the judge gave Arias and her defense lawyer ten full days to present their own case. Why so long?
Well, for one thing, the judge wants to take a few days to consider the defense’s motion to dismiss. At any criminal trial in the United States, the prosecution has the sole responsibility to prove its case. The prosecutor
must call all the witnesses and present all the evidence that is necessary to convict the defendant. Technically, the defense does not need to do a single thing in response.
If the judge does not believe that the prosecutor proved that Arias killed her ex-boyfriend, the judge can grant the defense’s motion and the case would end with Arias a free woman.
However, it seems to us that the judge is going to find cause to deny that motion given the wealth of evidence against Arias, from her conflicting statements to her procurement of weapons to her ultimate confession to law enforcement. It is going to be up to the defense team to provide an alternative theory in their case.
So why the hiatus? Any number of reasons – it’s possible that someone involved in the trial is unavailable for those dates, or perhaps the judge just wants time to catch up with the court calendar. However, we suspect that part of the reason for the time is to give Arias a chance to negotiate and take a plea deal before the jury returns with a near-certain conviction. It’s possible that there is a deal on the table for a lesser sentence than the jury would hand down, and now that Arias sees how badly her case is going, she might take the opportunity to capitulate now.
January 14, 2013: This trial is better than a soap opera, full of sex, lies and photographs documenting the whole darn thing. We can hardly believe some of the sordid details that have come out during this trial. The prosecution isn’t holding back; we’ve seen all the sexts, explicit messages on Facebook and racy pictures that document the tumultuous, passionate affair between Arias and Alexander.
It seems almost counter-intuitive that the prosecution would be playing up the intimate relationship between Arias and Alexander. Since Arias was so close to Alexander, how could she be guilty of his murder?
But that intimacy only adds fuel to the prosecution’s theory: if Arias’ relationship with Alexander was that steamy, that involved, that obsessive, then there’s the motive. The argument will be that because the two were so close, when Alexander and Arias split up, Arias just couldn’t take it anymore. The level of infatuation between Arias and Alexander now looks like a mania. It’s a very clever way of taking evidence that might have hurt their case and making it the touchstone of the case against her.
The sexy pictures of the couple in happier times also serve as a stark visual contrast to the pictures of Alexander allegedly taken by Arias after she had killed him. Those photographs side by side will be a chilling reminder for the jury that this is a case of violent, obsessive love — just what the prosecution hopes to prove.
The prosecution may also be hoping that by tarnishing Arias’ reputation by making her look promiscuous, they will be able to convince the jury that she was capable of other immoral acts. It should go without saying that to do so plays on the worst of gender stereotyping, but it may still prove to be an effective tool for the case against Arias.
That Jezebel theory may shed some light on why witness Ryan Burns was a prosecution witness and not a defense witness. Burns was the man who Arias was making out with the day after Alexander was killed. Instead of proving that Arias had an alibi or was utterly unaware of Alexander’s death, because she did not seem upset or shaken in any way during her interaction with Burns, the prosecution used it to show that Arias is unfeeling and promiscuous. Very slick.
January 3 2013: Watching this trial, it’s hard not to think of the classic quotation from William Congreve, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Is that all there is to this case? Jodi Arias, a beautiful young woman surrounded by loving family and friends, just flipped out and gruesomely slaughtered her ex because she was jealous?
That’s what the prosecution would have us all believe. And it’s true enough that Jodi is not the most sympathetic defendant. She was certainly in Arizona around the time of his death, according to the sexy photographs of her and Alexander. Yet she told police she was on the road. Then she told them she was there, but the murder was caused by masked intruders. Finally she told them she killed Alexander but acted in self-defense. Those three conflicting stories alone may be enough to secure her conviction.
The defense would be wise to bring in an expert on battered woman syndrome, a very real psychological disorder. An expert can talk about how women who are the subject of constant physical or mental abuse do not stand up to law enforcement pressure the same way a mentally healthy person might be able to. A battered woman will make excuses for her behavior, she will demur from the truth and she will do anything to protect her abuser’s innocence.
Battered women also generally fail to report previous instances of abuse in their relationships, so when an abused partner does finally “snap” and become aggressive toward her abuser, that behavior seems like it’s coming out of nowhere.
If the defense can make a compelling argument for battered woman syndrome or a similar heat of passion killing, Arias might be spared the death penalty and convicted of second-degree murder instead. But in any case, it is unlikely she will be exonerated completely. She is looking at many more years in jail.