PHOENIX — As she awaits a decision by prosecutors on the future of her murder case, Jodi Arias and her attorneys are returning to court today to ask the judge to throw out the jury’s finding that made her eligible for the death penalty.
Arias was convicted of first-degree murder May 8 in the stabbing and shooting death of Travis Alexander in his suburban Phoenix home. About two weeks later, the same jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence Arias to life in prison or death.
Her case is now in limbo as prosecutors decide whether to put on another penalty phase with a new jury in pursuit of the death penalty — or simply take the death penalty off the table, a move that would either see Arias spend the rest of her life behind bars or be eligible for release after 25 years. That decision would be up to the judge.
The oral arguments today focus on a determination by the Arias jury that she killed her one-time lover in an “especially cruel” manner. The determination meant that Arias was eligible for the death penalty.
Arias’ attorneys argue that the definition of “especially cruel” is too vague for jurors with no legal experience to determine what makes one killing more cruel or heinous than another. Their June motion appears to challenge a landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found a defendant has the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide on the existence of an aggravating factor that makes the defendant eligible for capital punishment.
The high court in that case, which originated in Arizona, determined that allowing judges to make such findings violated a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. Prosecutors argue that state and federal courts have found the process continues to pass constitutional muster, and that the defense motion lacks merit.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has said the state is preparing to seek the death penalty again for Arias, but would consider resolving the case without another trial after consultation with the victim’s family and defense lawyers, among other things. He said the cost of the case would play no role in his office’s decision whether to retry Arias.
Taxpayers footed the bill for Arias’ court-appointed attorneys throughout her nearly five-month trial at a cost so far of nearly $1.7 million, a price tag that will only balloon if the case moves forward.
Montgomery has declined to publicly release the cost his office incurred prosecuting the case.
Just seating a new impartial jury could take weeks, given the widespread publicity of the trial that captured headlines worldwide with lurid tales of sex, betrayal and a bloody killing. That lengthy process would be followed by reading testimony and evidence to bring the fresh panel up to speed before jurors would once again attempt to decide whether Arias should live or die.
If the second panel failed to reach a unanimous decision, the death penalty would automatically be removed from consideration, and the judge would sentence Arias to life.
Arias, 33, admitted she killed Alexander, but claimed it was self-defense after he attacked her. Prosecutors argued it was premeditated murder carried out in a jealous rage after the victim wanted to end their affair and planned a trip to Mexico with another woman.