Arias Trial: Jury foreman says life or death decision unfair - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Arias Trial: Jury foreman says life or death decision unfair

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Posted: Friday, May 24, 2013 6:37 pm | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Aug 26, 2013.

They were 12 ordinary citizens who didn't oppose the death penalty. But unlike spectators outside the courthouse who followed the case like a daytime soap opera and jumped to demand Jodi Arias' execution, the jurors faced a decision that was wrenching and real, with implications that could haunt them forever.

In an interview Friday, jury foreman William Zervakos provided a glimpse into the private deliberations, describing four women and eight men who struggled with the question: How heinous of a killing deserves a similar fate?

"The system we think is flawed in that sense because this was not a case of a Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson," Zervakos told The Associated Press.

"It was a brutal no-win situation. ... I think that's kind of unfair," the 69-year-old added. "We're not lawyers. We can't interpret the law. We're mere mortals. And I will tell you I've never felt more mere as a mortal than I felt for the last five months."

Zervakos said the most difficult time of the entire trial was hearing directly from victim Travis Alexander's family as his brother and sister tearfully explained how his killing has shattered their lives.

"There was no sound in that jury room for a long time after that because you hurt so bad for these people," he said. "But that wasn't evidence. That's what made it so hard. ... This wasn't about them. This was a decision whether we're going to tell somebody they were going to be put to death or spend the rest of their life in prison."

Zervakos described a deliberations room full of tears and spinning moral compasses as each juror struggled to come to grips with their own beliefs about what factors — including Arias' young age at the time of the killing and her lack of criminal history — should cause them to show mercy and spare her life.

"You've got Travis Alexander's family devastated, that he was killed, that he was brutally killed. You've got Jodi Arias' family sitting in there, both families sitting and seeing these humiliating images and listening to unbelievably lurid private details of their lives, and you've got a woman whose life is over, too," Zervakos said. "I mean, who's winning in this situation? And we were stuck in the middle."

Zervakos declined to discuss his thoughts or those of other jurors on whether Arias should have been sentenced to death or life. But he said he was torn between her two personas: a killer and an average young woman struggling through life.

"You heard (prosecutor Juan) Martinez say she was only 27. ... She's old enough that she should have known better," Zervakos said. "I didn't look at it that way. I'm looking at 27 years of an absolutely normal everyday young woman that was living a life that was perfectly normal. Then something changed the trajectory of her life after meeting Travis Alexander, and it spiraled downhill from there."

The same jury on May 8 convicted Arias of first-degree murder in Alexander's killing, but couldn't reach a decision Thursday after about 13 hours of deliberations on whether she should live or die.

Judge Sherry Stephens was forced to declare a mistrial of the penalty phase and dismissed the panel.

A conference with the judge and attorneys is set for June 20 to determine how both sides want to proceed. In the interim, Stephens set a July 18 retrial date.

The mistrial set the stage for a whole new proceeding to determine whether the 32-year-old former waitress should get a life sentence or the death penalty for murdering Alexander five years ago.

Arias stabbed and slashed him nearly 30 times, slit his throat slit and shot him in the forehead. Prosecutors said she attacked Alexander in a jealous rage after he wanted to end their relationship and planned a trip to Mexico with another woman. Arias contends it was self-defense.

Prosecutors now have the option to take the death penalty off the table and avoid a new penalty phase. The judge would then determine whether to sentence Arias to spend her entire life behind bars, or give her life with the possibility of release after 25 years. Given Arias could not afford her own defense, taxpayers footed the bill for court-appointed attorneys at a cost so far of nearly $1.7 million, a price tag that will only balloon if the case moves forward.

Should the state decide to seek death again, jury selection alone could take months, given the difficulty of seating an impartial panel in a case that has attracted global attention and become daily cable TV and tabloid fodder with tales of sex, lies and violence, said jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius.

"Will it be impossible? No. Will it be tough? Absolutely," she said.

Dimitrius noted that jury selection in the widely publicized trial of infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the "Night Stalker," who is on death row in California, took six months as attorneys weeded through more than 2,000 prospective jurors.

If Arias faces a new penalty phase, her murder conviction would stand, leaving the new panel tasked only with sentencing her. However, the proceedings could drag on for several more months as the new jury reviews evidence and witness testimony.

If the second jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge would then sentence Arias to one of the life-in-prison options. The judge cannot sentence Arias to death.

Jodi Arias asked jurors Tuesday to give her life in prison, saying she "lacked perspective" when she told a local reporter in an interview that she preferred execution to spending the rest of her days in jail.

Standing confidently but at times her voice breaking, she told the same eight men and four women who found her guilty of first-degree murder that she planned to use her time in prison to bring about positive changes, including donating her hair to be made into wigs for cancer victims, helping recycle trash and designing T-shirts that would raise money for victims of domestic abuse.

Arias admitted killing boyfriend Travis Alexander and said it was the "worst thing" she had ever done. But she stuck to her story that the brutal attack — which included stabbing and slashing Alexander nearly 30 times, shooting him in the head and nearly decapitating him — was her defense against abuse.

Her testimony came a day after her attorneys asked to be removed from the case because they felt the five-month trial had become a witch hunt that prompted death threats against a key witness in the penalty phase. They also argued for a mistrial. The judge denied both requests.

Arias acknowledged the pain and suffering she caused Alexander's family, and said she hoped her conviction brought them peace.

"I loved Travis, and I looked up to him," Arias said. "At one point, he was the world to me. This is the worst mistake of my life. It's the worst thing I've ever done."

She said she considered suicide, but didn't kill herself after Alexander's death because of her love for her own family. She displayed a handful of pictures from her childhood, including photos of her family and former boyfriends.

Arias said she regretted that details of her sex life with Alexander came out during the trial, and described a recorded phone sex call played in open court as "that awful tape."

"It's never been my intention to throw mud on Travis' name," she said, adding that she had hoped to reach a deal with prosecutors before the case ever went to trial.

"I was willing to go quietly into the night," Arias said.

The jury paid close attention to Arias as she spoke, their gaze turning to the large screen behind her as she ticked through family photos and explained the stories behind each image. Arias retained her composure throughout much of her statement, pausing occasionally as she apparently cried, but no tears were visible.

Alexander's family sobbed throughout her speech as Arias' mother and father looked on from the other side of the gallery.

After she finished speaking, the judge told jurors they can consider a handful of factors when deciding what sentence to recommend, including the fact that Arias has no previous criminal record. They also can weigh defense assertions that Arias is a good friend and a talented artist.

Judge Sherry Stephens also explained to jurors that their decision would be final, emphasizing the fact that Arias' life is literally in their hands.

"You will determine whether the defendant will be sentenced to life in prison or death," Stephens told the panel. "Your decision is not a recommendation."

The jury will hear closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, then begin deliberating Arias' fate for the June 2008 killing of Alexander in his suburban Phoenix home.

Arias initially claimed she knew nothing about the slaying. Then she blamed masked intruders before eventually arguing self-defense. Prosecutors contend she killed Alexander in a jealous rage because he wanted to end their relationship and go to Mexico with another woman.

Arias' attorneys also tried without success to withdraw from the case after Arias gave her post-conviction TV interview.

"Longevity runs in my family, and I don't want to spend the rest of my natural life in one place," a visibly shaken Arias told Fox affiliate KSAZ from a holding cell inside the courthouse. "I believe death is the ultimate freedom, and I'd rather have my freedom as soon as I can get it."

Last week, Alexander's brother and sister tearfully described for the jury how Alexander's death has torn apart their lives. Defense attorneys had planned to call witnesses, including a female friend and ex-boyfriend of Arias, to speak on her behalf. But after the judge denied all their motions on Monday, they said Arias would be the only one speaking to jurors.

Defense attorneys claimed the female friend had received death threats and refused to testify. They then argued Arias could not receive a fair trial in the penalty phase without the witness, but the judge disagreed.

Instead, Stephens simply told jurors the woman was supposed to testify about Arias' "abusive environment she grew up in and abuse as an adult," but was now unavailable to appear in court.

Arias told jurors the friend and her young son had been "threatened and harassed."

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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