Arias guilty of first-degree murder; penalty phase starts Thursday

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- Jodi Arias is guilty of first-degree murder and eligible for the death penalty.

People gathered outside the courthouse cheered wildly moments after the verdict was read. Arias kept her face carefully blank, gasping only slightly and looking for a brief moment like she might cry, but quickly gathered herself and then showed very little emotion as the judge polled the jury.

After a soap-opera-like trial that kept the country captivated for months with stories of sex, lies and alleged abuse, eight men and four women deliberated for less than four full days before handing down their decision Wednesday afternoon, saying in no uncertain terms that they did not buy Arias' claim of self-defense.

“Today’s verdict closes the guilt phase of State v. Jodi Ann Arias. However, the pursuit of justice on behalf of Travis Alexander continues," County Attorney Bill Montgomery wrote in a statement released just after the verdict was announced. "We look forward to the next phase of the proceedings, where the State will present evidence to prove the murder was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner. Consistent with the State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, my Office will have no further comment at this time.”

Shortly after her arrest in July 2008, a little more than a month after Alexander's murder, Arias confidently told reporters that no jury would ever convict her.

"You can mark my words on that," she said.

Minutes after the jury's verdict was read and recorded, 3TV's Jared Dillingham saw the jurors leave through the back exit. He said they appeared emotionless as they boarded a bus that was surrounded by police parked on a street that had been blocked off.

A short time later, Maricopa County sheriff's deputies escorted Arias' family from the courtroom.

The aggravation phase: Deciding if the death penalty is an option

This case has already dominated the lives of the jury members for more than four months, but even though they've delivered their verdict, they're far from finished.

Now the trial enters the aggravation phase. This is where the jury decides if the death penalty is an option. They're not deciding Arias' actual sentence at this point, just whether or not the death sentence can be applied.

Both the prosecution and the defense will call witnesses and present evidence. This phase of the ongoing Arias saga will start Thursday afternoon. It's not clear how long this "mini trial" will take.

If the jurors decide there are no aggravating factors that warrant the death penalty, the judge will dismiss them and decide Arias' sentence herself -- either life in prison or life with the possibility of parole in 25 years.

If the jury does find aggravating factors, the trial moves to the penalty phase. That's when the jury will decide whether Arias will live or die. That decision, like the verdict, must be unanimous. Only a jury can hand down the death sentence. If they can't come to a unanimous decision, the judge will handle the sentencing. In that case, however, execution will be off the table. It will be a life sentence, again either with or without parole.

The jury's verdict options

After being presented with more than 650 exhibits and hearing testimony from nearly 40 witnesses over the course of almost 60 days, the jury basically had four options -- guilty of first-degree murder, which opens up the door for the death penalty, guilty of second-degree murder, guilty of manslaughter, or acquittal. There also was the possibility of a hung jury, which would have meant a unanimous decision was out of reach.

The case

Accused of murdering her on-again, off-again lover Alexander in June 2008, Arias, 33, originally told police she had nothing to do with his death. She changed her story not once, but twice, eventually admitting that she killed Alexander, but insisting it was self-defense.

That was the story she stuck with all through the long, dramatic trial that seemed to revolve around sex and lies and was filled with graphic testimony and evidence.

Alexander was stabbed nearly 30 times, shot in the head and had his throat slit.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez spent the trial poking holes in Arias' version of events, seizing on the fact that there was never any evidence of abuse and questioning her memory. His goal was to convince the jury that Arias was a woman scorned who plotted and carried out Alexander's murder in a cold-blooded and calculated manner, hence the charge of first-degree murder, which requires premeditation.

Defense lawyers, who were trying to keep their client off of death row, put up a variety of expert witnesses, one of whom was on the stand for several days. Those experts talked about a variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress, amnesia, battered woman's syndrome and borderline personality disorder. They said those conditions explain Arias and her behaviors.

Because any verdict must be unanimous, trial experts say the defense team worked extremely hard to get at least one juror to connect with Arias and perhaps even identify with or sympathize with her in an effort to avoid a conviction on the first-degree murder charge and potential death sentence it carries.

Arias on the witness stand

Arias herself was on the witness stand for 18 days, during which she and Martinez butted heads on more than one occasion, one of which reduced Arias to tears. As she recounted her time with Alexander, she said he became more and more violent in the days leading up to his death. She said she was scared for her life and had no choice but to kill Alexander.

"Who knows [what he was going to do]? He'd already almost killed me," she said, referring to a day several weeks earlier in which she said Alexander choked her until she blacked out.

"I was in the bathroom," she said of the June day. "I remember dropping the knife, and it clanged on the tile. I remember screaming. I don't remember anything after that."

There were quite a few things Arias claimed not to remember, and Martinez seized on those details as he questioned her.

The defense rested its case on April 16 after nearly 40 days of testimony. From there, all that was left was the state's rebuttal witnesses, closing arguments and, of course, jury deliberations.

Judge Sherry Stephens gave the jury instructions Thursday morning before the lawyers started their closing arguments. In those instructions, she said the jurors could consider the lesser charge of manslaughter, as well and first-degree and second-degree murder.

The jury took up the case Friday, broke for the weekend, and then worked all day Monday and Tuesday, and through the morning Wednesday.

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