PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona judge denied a defense attorney’s request for a mistrial on Monday in the death penalty phase of Jodi Arias’ sensational murder trial, after a long-time friend declined to testify as a character witness, citing threats.
Arias, 32, was found guilty earlier this month of murdering Travis Alexander, whose body was found slumped in the shower of his Phoenix-area home five years ago. He had been stabbed multiple times, had his throat slashed and been shot in the face.
Defense lawyers had hoped to call Arias’ friend Patricia Womack to testify on her behalf to jurors weighing whether to impose the death penalty. But defense counsel Kirk Nurmi told the court that Womack had received threats and would not testify.
Saying Womack’s absence would deny the jury a full picture of Arias’ life prior to meeting Alexander in 2006, Nurmi requested a penalty phase mistrial. This would have affected the sentencing portion of the trial while leaving her murder conviction intact.
“This cannot not be a modern day version of a witch trial,” Nurmi said. “Miss Arias has the right to present this full picture. She is being precluded from doing so, and therefore a mistrial at this stage of the proceedings is the only lawful remedy.”
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens ruled there was no basis for a mistrial in the sentencing phase. She also denied a subsequent request by Nurmi to withdraw from the case on the grounds that he and attorney Jennifer Willmott could not provide effective defense for Arias.
The judge also denied a motion for a stay to give the defense time to appeal her decisions to the Arizona Supreme Court, and adjourned the court for the day. The trial is set to continue at 9:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, when Arias is expected to address the jury.
The absence of character witnesses could make it harder for defense attorneys in their bid to avoid a death sentence, although one legal expert said the extent of that damage to Arias’ defense remains “difficult to predict.”
“The lawyers want to present a full and complete mitigation story and that’s not happening here,” said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents death row prisoner appeal.
The same jury that convicted Arias of murder found last week that she had acted with extreme cruelty and ruled her eligible for the death penalty. Those jurors must now decide whether Arias, who has said she would prefer execution to life in prison, will get the death penalty.
Prosecutor Juan Martinez told the court on Monday that, in a prior interview with Womack, she had refused to answer questions about her drug use. He said that her refusal to incriminate herself would have precluded her from testifying.
The murder case against Arias has featured graphic testimony and photographs as well as a sex tape and became a sensation on cable television news with the tale of an attractive and soft-spoken young woman charged with a brutal crime.
Hearing testimony on Thursday on the impact of the slaying, Alexander’s younger brother Steven told jurors that the killing had invaded his dreams and that he had been hospitalized several times for ulcers since the murder.
Alexander’s younger sister Samantha, meanwhile, said thoughts of “the pain, agony, the screams and the fear” of her brother’s last moments remained stuck in her mind.
Arias has said she shot Alexander with his own pistol when he attacked her in a rage because she dropped his camera while taking snapshots of him in the shower. She said she did not remember stabbing him.
Martinez said Arias had repeatedly stabbed Alexander for two minutes as he tried to escape from the bathroom. She then followed the bleeding victim down a hallway and slashed his throat when he was too weak to get away.
Alexander, a 30-year-old businessman and motivational speaker with whom Arias said she was having an on-again, off-again affair, knew he was going to die and was unable to resist his attacker at that point, Martinez said.
On Thursday, defense attorney Nurmi walked jurors through eight mitigating factors they are asked to consider as they mull Arias’ punishment. Among the factors is whether Arias, who was 27 at the time of the murder and had no criminal history, had suffered abuse.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Gregorio and Richard Chang