Jury selection begins Monday in penalty phase of Jodi Arias case
(CNN) — When jury selection gets underway in a Phoenix courtroom on Monday, attorneys may be hard-pressed to find jurors untainted by news of the case against Jodi Arias.
Lurid details about how the former waitress seduced her lover and left a trail of pictures depicting their sex play, before shooting and nearly decapitating him, created a media sensation for months during her 2013 trial.
A new jury will be tasked with determining punishment after her first jury found her guilty of first-degree murder but deadlocked on whether she should be put to death for the 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, who was stabbed 29 times, had his neck slit from ear to ear and shot in the face.
“She’s very scared,” said Donavan Bering, a friend of Arias. “Things changed for her. She came to the realization that she didn’t want the death penalty. She wants to be able to see her mom and her family.”
After efforts to settle the case went nowhere and legal motions to drop the death penalty were denied, Arias will resume the fight for her life with the help of a lead attorney, Kirk Nurmi, that she neither wants or trusts.
“I do not trust his advice and especially do not trust how he might conduct himself towards me because I know from personal experience that he is curt, rude and condescending,” she wrote in a 12-page, single-spaced handwritten letter to the judge in October of 2013.
When her efforts to replace him were unsuccessful, she persuaded the judge to let her represent herself, but then changed her mind weeks before the start of her retrial. The defense team is made up of Nurmi, Jennifer Willmott and mitigation specialist Maria Delarosa.
Sex, lies and digital images
While Arias has the same defense team, trial strategy could be a lot different if Nurmi follows the advice of jury foreman William Zervakos, who shared his thoughts with the defense team when they met with him to discuss the case.
“Jodi Arias is her own worst enemy. She’s a terrible defendant,” said Zervakos, one of the four jurors who voted to spare her life. “I was candid with them. I told them it was best if she were not on the stand.”
“The strategy this time is to keep Jodi off the stand,” said a source close to the defense. “However, Jodi has a mind of her own.”
Arias spent 18 days on the witness stand recalling the minutiae of her allegedly abusive relationship with Alexander, but claimed to have no recollection of the actual attack.
The trial was rife with sex, lies and digital images, including graphic autopsy photos that showed Alexander’s body.
But the 2013 hung jury brought to a close a dramatic chapter in a high-profile case that lasted months, drawing spectators who lined up for courtroom seats and waited anxiously outside the courthouse.
Emotions ran high in the courtroom as the jury’s inability to agree on a sentence was announced. Arias appeared to be on the verge of tears. One of Alexander’s sisters sobbed.
Even the normally stoic judge’s voice cracked as she dismissed jurors.
“Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the participants in this trial, I wish to thank you for your extraordinary service to this community,” she told them. “This was not your typical trial. You were asked to perform very difficult responsibilities.”
An alternate juror and a juror who was on the panel cried as the verdict was being read.
As the jury filed out of the courtroom, one juror said, “I’m sorry” to Alexander’s family.
Jurors had deliberated for more than 13 hours in the penalty phase of the trial when they told the court they wouldn’t be able to agree on a verdict.
“We’ll never know what happened, and whatever triggered that rage,” said Zervakos. “She must be held accountable. But up until then, she had led a relatively normal life.”
Witnesses threatened and intimidated?
The jury foreman found mitigating evidence in her lack of criminal history and was not persuaded by the state’s argument that the murder was premeditated. Despite the heavy social media backlash from people who wanted the death penalty for Arias, Zervakos said time has only made him more comfortable with in his decision.
Arias needs only to persuade one juror to vote in her favor to avoid the death penalty. While the odds may seem favorable, it is a formidable challenge for a defense team that has complained that their witnesses have been threatened, intimidated and bullied into silence by “haters” who loathe Arias.
“It’s impossible to get a fair trial with all the publicity this case has received,” said a source close to the defense. “We had several witnesses who backed down because they are so afraid to support Jodi.”
The jury is expected to hear the state argue that the murder was especially cruel and heinous, a violent attack that included dozens of stab wounds, a knife wound to the neck that went down to the spine, and a bullet to the head.
Arias’ behavior before and after the murder — allegedly stealing her grandfather’s gun, getting rid of incriminating evidence, including the weapons used in the attack, and a rendezvous with a prospective lover hours after killing Alexander — are likely fodder for the state’s case for the death penalty.
The reluctance of defense witnesses to testify may also have something to do with the aggressive style of prosecutor Juan Martinez, whose cross of defense expert Alyce LaViolette caused her such anxiety she sought medical help during the trial. She refused to return for the retrial, telling CNN’s Ted Rowlands: “Threats to my life, threats to my family. My family doesn’t want me to go back.”
LaViolette wasn’t the only defense witness raked over the coals by Martinez, who mocked the professionalism of defense psychologist Richard Samuels, suggesting his judgment was clouded by his fondness for Arias. The psychologist testified that one of the reasons for Arias’ amnesia was post-traumatic stress disorder.
The exchanges between Martinez and Samuels became so heated during trial that defense attorney Jennifer Willmott pleaded with the judge to intervene and “tell (the prosecutor) stop yelling at the witness.”
While some of Arias’ witnesses have abandoned the case, the defense has cobbled together a “handful of witnesses,” their names kept secret and their testimony spared the pressure of live TV coverage by a court order, said the source close to the defense.
Judge Sherry Stephens ruled that while TV cameras will be permitted in the retrial, no video can be aired until a verdict has been rendered. Her decision came after the defense argued that live TV coverage would keep their witnesses from testifying.
“There will be people testifying that now feel safe where they didn’t before,” said Bering, Arias’ friend. “I think there will be a lot of surprises.”