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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.

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Arias was placed on suicide watch last week, but on Monday she returned to a Phoenix jail for the remainder of her trial.

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There is “irony” in the fact that “it is not unprecedented for individuals under sentence of death to attempt suicide, and heroic measures are taken to save their lives so they can be executed,” Professor Acker says.

In the first modern-era execution, Gary Gilmore was put to death by firing squad in 1977 for multiple murders. He had relinquished all appeals, attempted suicide, and then was treated so he’d survive for his execution, before which he famously said, “Let’s do it.”

“The state ... insists on its prerogative to carry out the lawful judgment of death,” Acker says.

Prosecutors seeking the death penalty tend to probe not only if potential jurors are willing to consider that penalty, but also their attitudes about life in prison versus the death penalty, Acker says.

Sixty-three percent of the American public supported the death penalty for murderers in a 2012 Gallup poll.

“We know from interviewing well over 1,000 jurors that they act in very unpredictable and arbitrary ways, and in violation of what the Constitution says they should do,” says William Bowers, senior researcher of the Capital Jury Project based at the University at Albany.

Sometimes jurors are influenced by whether they think a defendant would pose a danger within the prison, or if he or she managed to escape. Other times they lean toward life in prison if the defendant seems remorseful, which can tilt the system toward white, middle-class defendants who know better how to come across that way to a jury, Dr. Bowers says.

For the death penalty to be imposed, all the jurors must agree. If they can’t agree on a penalty, a new jury is impaneled to hear the penalty phase, and if the second jury can’t agree, the judge must impose life in prison without parole, Acker says.

Maricopa County, Ariz., where Arias is being tried, ranks 11th among US counties for the most executions since 1976 (11 of them), according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. It’s fourth in terms of the number of inmates on death row, 81. In all of Arizona, 125 people are on death row, three of them women.

Nationally, inmates spend an average of 14.5 years on death row, though it can be much longer – or shorter if they relinquish appeals, which about 11 percent do, Acker says.

Arias was convicted of killing a man she had dated, Travis Alexander, inflicting at least 30 knife wounds and shooting him. Prosecutors called his family members to the stand during the penalty phase Thursday.

If Arias is sentenced to death, there will probably be a round of appeals, but the delays common in some other states because of debates over the method of execution would not be as likely in Arizona, says Mr. Rushford. In Arizona, a single drug is used for lethal injection rather than a three-drug protocol that has met stiffer court challenges, he says.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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