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Jury considers death penalty in Arias case

10:13 PM, May 9, 2013   |    comments
Jodi Arias is charged with first-degree murder in the 2008 death of Travis Alexander. (Photo: Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic)
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By Anne Ryman
The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX - If a jury finds Jodi Arias eligible for the death penalty, she would join only a handful of women on Arizona's death row.

Only three of the 125 inmates on death row in Arizona are women, and one of them, Debra Milke, recently had her conviction overturned. A woman hasn't been executed in Arizona since 1930. And that execution didn't go very well. Eva Dugan, convicted of killing a Tucson chicken farmer, was hanged and accidentally decapitated.

Arias was convicted Wednesday of the premeditated murder of her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Next week jurors will start deliberating whether the 32-year-old should get the death penalty or life in prison.

STORY: Arias penalty phase delayed

"Statistically ... it's very unlikely that she will be sentenced to death," said Victor Streib, a retired law professorat Ohio Northern University who has researched the death penalty since the 1970s. "If she's sentenced to death, it's extremely unlikely she'll be put to death. But predicting what a jury will do is difficult."

Streib and other experts point to two factors leading to the low number of women on death row:

• Women commit far fewer first-degree murders than men.

• Jurors may have a gender bias, viewing women as mothers and caregivers, traits that make it harder to impose the death penalty, they say.

"Even though we've come a long way in trying to treat women and men equally, as we know, we aren't there," said Andy Silverman, an attorney who has worked on capital cases and a professor at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.

Nationally, women commit about 10 percent of murders but account for only about 2 percent of death sentences. In a given year, three to five women receive the death penalty, a number that has stayed about the same over the past 40 years, Streib said.

It's even more rare for a state to execute a woman. Since 1973, women have accounted for only 12 executions, less than 1 percent..

Women are also more likely to kill someone close to them -- a husband, lover or a child -- than strangers, the experts say. Crimes of passion are many times not premeditated so they don't end up being capital cases.

In Arias' case, she knew her victim well. Travis Alexander was her former boyfriend, and they had an on-again, off-again relationship. They would split up, but then he would invite her over for sex.

Arias admitted killing Alexander on June 4, 2008. Five days later, friends found Alexander in the shower of his Mesa home. He had 27 stab wounds, a slashed throat and a bullet in his head.

The jury will look at what are called "aggravating factors" in determining whether she deserves the death penalty.

The prosecution has alleged cruelty as an aggravating factor in Arias' case. For a finding of cruelty, the jury must agree that the victim, while conscious, experienced mental and physical pain and that the defendant knew or should have known that the victim would suffer.

The jury has to find an aggravating factor - or the death penalty is off the table. Arias would instead then get 25 year to life in prison or life without the possibility of parole.

Juries can be highly influenced if the crime is especially graphic, experts say. In the Arias case, prosecutors showed photo after photo of blood spatters and stains. One image showed Alexander's head cut halfway off. Many juries are never able to get past the photos, experts say. The images stay with them.

The defense will introduce mitigating factors, reasons why the jury should be more lenient. Defense attorneys often seek to portray the woman defendant as emotionally dependent, shy and under the man's control. Other times, they try to build sympathy by bringing up the woman's difficult childhood.

Much of the outcome depends on the skill of attorneys, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.

Deter cites as an example the case of Susan Smith, who killed her two sons in South Carolina in 1994. On an October evening, Smith was despondent over a recent breakup with a married man. She considered suicide. Instead, she strapped 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex into their car seats and rolled the car into the lake. She first said a black man carjacked the vehicle. Then, when her story unraveled, she confessed.

Her attorney, the famous death-penalty lawyer Judy Clarke, was able to arouse sympathy for Smith. Clarke described Smith as depressed and still suffering from being sexually molested by her stepfather. A jury spared her life. She is serving 30 years to life in prison.

In the Arias case, the experts say that even though the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, sentencing her to death is another matter.

"Even somebody who voted for (first-degree murder) may not feel comfortable with the death penalty," Silverman said.

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