Death penalty phase next in Arizona murder case

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The same jury that convicted an Arizona woman of murder in the hammer-bludgeoning death of her husband will immediately begin hearing testimony to decide whether she lives or dies for the crime.

The jury took more than five days to reach the first-degree murder verdict against Marissa Devault in the 2009 death of her husband after about two months of testimony. She would become the third woman on death row in Arizona if the jury decides on death.

Prosecutors say Devault killed Dale Harrell in a failed bid to collect on a life insurance policy to repay about $300,000 in loans from her boyfriend. Devault says she killed her husband in self-defense and told investigators he had physically and sexually abused her in the past.

A hearing will begin Wednesday to establish whether there were "aggravating factors" in the case, which will determine whether Devault is eligible for a death sentence.

Devault sat facing the jury and remained expressionless as the verdict was read during a brief hearing in Phoenix.

"This was the verdict I was hoping for," said Amy Dewey, who lived with Devault and Harrell for about four months in the late 1990s and attended the trial as a way to honor Harrell's memory. Dewey was once a friend of Devault, but their relationship eventually soured.

Alan Tavassoli, one of Devault's attorneys, declined to comment on the verdict.

The case had many salacious elements, including testimony about plots to hire a hit man and the fact that Devault was a former stripper who met her boyfriend on a sugar-daddy dating website. But the judge in the case made extensive efforts to keep the trial from becoming the spectacle that enveloped the Jodi Arias case in the same courthouse a year ago.

He warned the attorneys involved that he did not want any Arias trial fanatics on the jury, and he tried to keep certain sensational elements out of the trial. Devault's past as a stripper, for instance, was barely mentioned during the trial. The case attracted nowhere near the attention of the Arias trial despite some similar circumstances.

Arias was spared the death penalty after her jury was deadlocked in the penalty phase of her trial.

Like Arias, Devault maintains she killed in self-defense and told investigators that her husband had physically and sexually abused her in the past.

But prosecutors contend the attack on Harrell was premeditated and say Devault gave conflicting accounts of her husband's death. Harrell, 34, suffered multiple skull fractures in the January 2009 attack at the couple's home in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. He died nearly a month later at a hospice because of complications from his head injuries.

Jerry Cobb, spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Devault, had no immediate comment on the verdict.

Dewey said she and Devault met while they attended the same community college, but that their friendship soured when Devault made abusive comments toward her. She said she had concerns about the chances for a first-degree murder verdict as jury deliberations entered their sixth day.

"I felt like they (prosecutors) did a good job of proving her guilty and the premeditation," Dewey said.

Devault initially told investigators that her husband attacked her while she was asleep and choked her until she was unconscious. She also told police that when she woke up, she saw another man who lived at their home beating Harrell with a hammer.

But authorities say bloodstain patterns showed Harrell was alone in the bed at the time of the attack and that bloodstains on Devault's clothes were consistent with a person swinging an object repeatedly over his or her head.

Investigators say Devault later confessed to attacking her husband, saying she pummeled him in a rage as he slept after he sexually assaulted her.

The key prosecution witness was Devault's former boyfriend, Allen Flores, a Yale University-educated management consultant who is 20 years older than Devault and had loaned her $300,000 during their two-year relationship.

Flores testified that Devault wanted to either hire someone to kill Harrell, or kill him herself and tell police he tried to rape her after a night of drinking.

Devault's attorneys attacked Flores' credibility, noting he was given an immunity agreement on child-pornography allegations in exchange for his testimony. The child pornography was found on Flores' computer during a search that was part of the murder investigation, authorities said.

Flores also testified that he once feared Devault would harm him, but he said that concern lifted after she was arrested. He said he went on to bail her out of jail, get her a lawyer and resume their intimate relationship.

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