PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona jury found Jodi Arias guilty on Wednesday of first-degree murder in the death of her ex-boyfriend in a capital trial that riveted America for months with graphic sexual evidence and bizarre testimony.
Arias, who could face the death penalty as her case goes into the penalty phase of the trial on Thursday, has admitted to shooting 30-year-old Travis Alexander, whose body was found in the shower of his Phoenix valley home in June 2008. He had been shot in the face, stabbed 27 times and his throat had been slashed.
Arias, 32, had tried unsuccessfully to convince the jury that she acted in self-defense after Alexander attacked her because she had dropped his camera while taking photos of him in the shower.
She teared up as the jury’s decision was read, while a crowd of hundreds erupted into cheers outside the court. Jurors could have convicted Arias of a lesser crime such as second-degree murder or manslaughter, but instead found her guilty of the most serious charge possible.
“Five long years ... of lying, manipulating. Now the citizens of Arizona have spoken,” Dave Hall, a friend of Alexander, told reporters as he left the court. He said a death sentence would be appropriate.
“If what she did to Travis does not justify the death penalty in America today, then what do we have one for?”
The trial, which was punctuated by graphic testimony and evidence including a sex tape, captivated a nation enthralled by the story of an attractive and soft-spoken young woman charged with such a brutal crime.
The case, which began in early January and was streamed live on the Internet, drew parallels with the similarly high-profile Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony, another young woman charged with an unthinkable crime. She was ultimately acquitted in 2011 in the death of her toddler daughter, Caylee.
In the Arizona case, jurors heard how the petite, dark-haired Arias met and began dating Alexander, a businessman and motivational speaker, in 2006. During 18 days of often salacious testimony, Arias said she and Alexander continued to have sex despite their break-up from a relationship marked by emotional and physical abuse.
Arias said Alexander had made her feel “like a prostitute” and that he kicked and attempted to choke her, although she admitted never reporting the alleged abuse to the police, seeking medical treatment or documenting it in her journal.
Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi argued that Arias had snapped in the “sudden heat of passion” in the moments between a final photograph she took showing Alexander alive and taking a shower and a subsequent picture showing him covered in his own blood.
But prosecutor Juan Martinez painted a different picture of Arias, portraying her as manipulative and prone to jealousy in previous relationships, and said she had meticulously planned to kill Alexander.
“Nothing indicates that this is anything less than a slaughter,” he told jurors in his summing up on Friday, asking them to return a verdict of felony first-degree murder.
An attorney for Alexander’s siblings, Jason Beckstead, said the family was pleased with the verdict and that his law firm planned to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Arias “in the very near future.” He would not stipulate damages sought.
At the sentencing trial beginning on Thursday, the prosecution will present evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that aggravating factors exist that call for the death penalty. The defense can also present rebuttal evidence.
Jurors will then determine if the aggravating circumstances were proved to exist beyond a reasonable doubt.
In making his case for premeditated murder, Martinez had accused Arias of bringing the pistol used in the killing, which has not been recovered, with her from California. He said she also rented a car, removed its license plate and bought gasoline cans and fuel to conceal her journey to the Phoenix suburbs to kill Alexander.
Martinez said Arias lied after the killing to deflect any suspicion that she had been involved in his death, leaving a voicemail on Alexander’s cellphone, sending irises to his grandmother and telling detectives she was not at the crime scene before changing her story.
The jury, which reached a verdict on its third full day of deliberations, had grilled her on her claims that her mind went blank after she shot Alexander, and wanted to know why she had not called emergency responders - questions she struggled to answer.
The defense called a psychologist who testified that Arias’ memory lapses stemmed from post-traumatic stress as a result of Alexander’s alleged abuse and the killing itself - claims disputed by prosecutors.
In closing arguments, Martinez told the jury Alexander had sent an instant message weeks before his death saying he was “extremely afraid” of Arias because of her “stalking behavior.”
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Brunnstrom, Richard Chang and Peter Cooney