PHOENIX — Complaining that Jodi Arias’ sensational murder case has become a modern-day “witch trial,” her lawyers tried to quit in the middle of the death-penalty phase Monday, then said they will call only one witness: Arias.
When Arias addresses the jury on Tuesday, the big question will be whether she pleads for mercy or repeats what she told a TV reporter minutes after she was convicted: that she would rather be executed than spend the rest of her life in prison.
The courtroom fireworks came as the jury that found Arias guilty of murder in the 2008 shooting and stabbing death of boyfriend Travis Alexander was hearing evidence on whether the former waitress should get the death penalty or a life sentence.
Last week, Alexander’s brother and sister tearfully described for the jury how his killing had torn their lives apart. This week, the defense planned to call its own witnesses, including a female friend and an ex-boyfriend of Arias, in hopes of convincing the jury her life is worth saving.
But defense attorney Kirk Nurmi told the court Monday morning that the female witness refused to testify after receiving threats, and he asked the judge to declare a mistrial in the penalty phase. He argued that he could no longer effectively defend Arias without all of the intended witnesses, and that “a partial picture is not good enough for this jury.”
Nurmi also renewed arguments that the judge should have sequestered the jury during the nearly five-month trial and that it should never have been broadcast live. The case became a tabloid and cable sensation, with its tales of sex, lies and death.
“The court had a duty to protect Ms. Arias’ right to a fair trial and failed to do so time and time again,” Nurmi told the judge. “This cannot be a modern-day version of … a witch trial.”
Judge Sherry Stephens denied the mistrial request. Nurmi then asked that he and co-counsel Jennifer Willmott be allowed to withdraw from the case, saying they could not effectively represent Arias.
The judge turned down that request too, to which Nurmi quickly replied, “We will not be calling witnesses in the defense case.”
Arias’ attorneys also tried without success to quit after she gave the interview in which she said she would prefer death over life in prison.
Arias, 32, initially claimed she knew nothing about the slaying, then blamed masked intruders, then claimed self-defense. Prosecutors argued she killed Alexander in a jealous rage because he wanted to end their relationship and go to Mexico with another woman.
Experts say the sheer brutality of the killing has probably already sealed Arias’ fate, so any witnesses presented during the penalty phase would have been pointless.
The victim suffered nearly 30 knife wounds, his throat was slit from ear to ear, and he was shot in the forehead. Arias then dragged him into his shower, where his decomposed body was found days later.
“I think they could put Mother Teresa on there and it’s not going to spare her life,” said Phoenix defense attorney Mel McDonald, a former judge and federal prosecutor.
San Francisco-area criminal defense lawyer Michael Cardoza said the request to quit the case and the defense decision not to call any witnesses on Arias’ behalf could very well be a strategic move — but one that could backfire.
“She could argue ineffective counsel on appeal, but the fact is, it’s anything but ineffective because what they’re doing is handing her an appeal,” Cardoza said. “So it’s actually very effective counsel.”