After Conviction in Murder Case, Sentencing Presents a New Trial

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PHOENIX – There were cheers and hugs on the packed sidewalk outside the courthouse here on Wednesday as word trickled out of a verdict in the four-month murder trial of Jodi Arias.

A petite woman with bangs and glasses, Ms. Arias, 32, stood accused of shooting, repeatedly stabbing and almost decapitating her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, five years ago. Nancy Grace of HLN, the cable news channel, who had done much to popularize the case on television, choked up as she delivered the news. "Guilty on murder one," she said.

The trial, which continued Thursday, has brought large crowds and a media scrum to the Maricopa County Superior Court, and a live, online video stream of the proceedings, as well as extensive coverage on cable television. Entered into evidence were sometimes salacious pictures, videos and text messages that depicted the couple's tumultuous relationship, and coverage of the trial took on some of the aspects of a nonfiction soap opera. Ratings soared.

Now, far from the cameras, in a jury room deep within the courthouse, the case enters its solemn ending, as 12 citizens began the task of deciding whether Ms. Arias should die for her crime.

If reality television shows have fueled viewers' appetites for the sensational details of courtroom testimony, jurors on many previous capital cases say that they were unprepared for the emotional impact of the sentencing phase. Reaching a decision to impose the death penalty, they say, is painfully difficult, with haunting effects that linger long after the trial ends.

Stephanie DePrima, 61, a sales clerk in Salem, Ore., recalled staring at autopsy pictures alongside other jurors during a trial three years ago, as a man's life "hung from the tips of our fingers," she said. The pictures, of a bank lobby where the defendants had detonated a bomb during a robbery, depicted "the most horrific scenes" she had ever seen, Ms. DePrima said.

"We saw so much, it got to a point we kind of started going numb," she recalled during an interview this week. "It became so overwhelming you had to shut yourself off from what you were seeing."

Ms. DePrima said she did not cry until weeks after the jury sentenced the defendant to death. Nightmares began after several months, she said, jolting her awake in sheer terror – "sweat, my heart beating fast."

Alison Ward, 65, a retiree from Sanibel, Fla., was a juror in 2010 in the capital trial of a man accused of killing his 11-month-old stepdaughter.

One image stayed with her, she said: the defendant and the girl's mother carrying the child's body in a suitcase, where they had stored it overnight.

"Reality is nothing like you see on TV," Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called "a measure of justice that is bizarre" -- a death as a sentence for a killing.

A Supreme Court ruling in 2002 required that jurors, rather than judges, decide whether sufficient aggravating factors existed before the death penalty can be imposed. In Arizona and most of the other 31 states that have the death penalty, jurors also decide on the sentencing, the only time in criminal prosecutions when the penalty is applied by average citizens.

During trials of any type, jurors cannot talk to anyone about the case they are weighing, not even one another, save for discussions held inside the sanctum of the deliberation room.

"We take all of that in," Ms. Ward lamented, "but can't get it out."

Ms. DePrima said she and some of the other jurors got together for coffee a few times "to decompress a little bit," but after a while, she stopped accepting the invitations. "it got too hard to remember," she said.

Ronald Reedy, 77, a juror in the capital trial of a man charged with stomping a person to death, said he often bumped into some of the other jurors, his neighbors at a retirement community in central Florida. The greeting is nothing more than, "Hi, how are you," he said.

"We did what we had to do," Mr. Reedy said, "and then it was over."

For the jurors weighing Ms. Arias' fate, the sentencing is the first step of the trial's final chapter. After considering whether aggravating factors were present, they will move to decide whether to recommend the death penalty. A Maricopa County medical examiner, Dr. Kevin Horn, returned to the stand on Thursday, his testimony meant to help prosecutors prove a single aggravating factor used to bolster a capital charge: that the murder was cruel because of "physical and mental suffering" it caused Mr. Alexander.

Of the 125 inmates on death row in Arizona, three are women. Depending on the jury's decision, Ms. Arias could be sent to join them, or she could remain in prison for the rest of her life. If jurors cannot reach a unanimous decision, Arizona law allows the court to order another jury. If a second jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge would impose a life sentence.

Ms. Arias has expressed her preference for execution. "Death is the ultimate freedom," she said during a television interview after the verdict. "I'd rather just have my freedom as soon as I can get it."

Susan C. Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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