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Jodi Arias trial: Does her statement about wanting death penalty factor in?

The death penalty phase of the Jodi Arias trial began on Thursday. Jurors aren't supposed to watch news coverage of the case, but experts say information from it often filters in.

By Staff writer / May 16, 2013

Jodi Arias looks at the family of Travis Alexander as the jury arrives on Wednesday, during the sentencing phase of her trial at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. Jurors might find themselves considering more than just the question of how heinous her crime was and whether mitigating factors should weigh against the death penalty.

Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic/AP

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As the penalty phase of the Jodi Arias trial began on Thursday, jurors might find themselves considering more than just the question of how heinous her crime was and whether mitigating factors should weigh against the death penalty.

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They might also be wrestling with whether life in prison or the death penalty is the most fitting punishment for a convicted murderer who said in a Fox News interview last week that “death is the ultimate freedom, and I’d rather have my freedom as soon as I can get it.”

Jurors aren’t supposed to watch news coverage of the case, but experts say such information often filters in. The Arias jury was not sequestered.

“If the law were followed in black-letter form with no human element attached, the jurors would have to consider only evidence in aggravation of the murder ... [and] any relevant evidence in mitigation of punishment,” but if they hear about her statement, “it couldn’t be totally expunged from their thinking,” says James Acker, a death-penalty expert and professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York. 

Perhaps she spoke in the heat of the moment after being convicted and will present a very different view when she speaks to the jury, which defense lawyer Kirk Nurmi said she would. He told the jury Thursday that they should grant her mercy and consider factors such as her lack of a criminal record, her age, and her artistic talent.

On the other hand, having not believed her defense during trial, jurors might hesitate to take anything she says at face value, says Michael Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty group in Sacramento, Calif.

“She may be playing with the system: We’ve seen that from condemned murderers,” he says. “She may well get what she asked for, and it may not be really what she really wanted.”

"I think Jodi's request for the death penalty is Jodi doing what she does – lying and manipulating,” Chris Hughes, a close friend of the victim, told The Huffington Post.

Ms. Arias’s statement could have complicated the job of her defense team.

The judge denied a request by her attorneys to step down from the case during a closed-door meeting Tuesday, the Associated Press reports, citing court minutes. The AP also cited legal sources explaining that it would not be unusual for defense attorneys to disclose to a judge that the defendant was doing something in conflict with their efforts to persuade jurors not to impose the death penalty.

These latest twists in a case that has played out in gruesome and salacious detail in the media also serve as a reminder that questions about justice and fitting punishment are largely subjective, and jurors in capital cases have a difficult job in deciding if someone should be put to death.

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