In Saving Jodi Arias' Life, Kirk Nurmi Became the Most Hated Lawyer in Arizona

In Saving Jodi Arias' Life, Kirk Nurmi Became the Most Hated Lawyer in Arizona
Andrew Pielage

Seated in the waiting room of his empty Phoenix office, defense attorney Kirk Nurmi appears beaten and battle weary.

Since gaining notoriety defending convicted murderer Jodi Arias, Nurmi has lost 75 pounds, and his clothing drapes loosely on his deflated frame. Yet, at 6-foot-2 and still rotund, he remains an imposing figure.

Info

Shanna Hogan wrote a book of her own on the Arias case, the bestselling Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story, a journalistic account of the murder and trial published in 2013 by St. Martin's Press.

Clasping both hands behind his head, Nurmi sighs as he opens up about the case that made his a household name.

"People still see me as a character: Nurmi the evil defense attorney who supports Jodi Arias," he says in his gentle voice. "As opposed to who I am and what my career stands for."

Throughout her highly publicized murder trial, most courtroom observers condemned Jodi Arias for the grisly 2008 slaying of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander.

The contagious contempt of Arias spread to her lawyers, family, and expert witnesses. And, as her lead attorney, Kirk Nurmi became the biggest target.

Across social media, Nurmi was called sleazy, despicable, slime, a snake, and a terrible lawyer. He received death threats and hundreds of nasty e-mails and phone calls.

To make matters worse, while advocating for Arias, the former public defender was barred by legal ethics from defending himself and his reputation.

Now, just months after Arias was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison, her former attorney is divulging how his most infamous client upended his world, may have destroyed his legal practice, and nearly cost him his life.

And he wants everyone to know this: He despises Jodi Arias, too.

Six months ago, Kirk Nurmi didn't know if he would be alive to tell his story.

Last August, not long after Arias' sentencing, he discovered a lump under his armpit.

At first, he wasn't worried. At 49, he was in good health, having shed so many pounds between Arias' two trials. He even had self-published a book about his weight loss.

After undergoing surgery to extract the lump, however, Nurmi was told he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Shock soon was replaced by near devastation.

"Within the course of a month or so, I had gone from a guy who felt great and was planning on getting back to work after a few months off to a guy that had non-Hodgkin lymphoma," he recalls. "I had just fought hard to save the life of a client whom I did not like, and now somehow I had to muster the strength to save my own."

Surgeons removed two more cancerous growths, and Nurmi spent five months undergoing intense chemotherapy.

Throughout the ordeal, he kept his diagnosis secret from everyone but family and his closest friends.

"I wasn't going to let cancer become a big deal in my life," he says. "I did not want to walk around with the label of 'cancer patient.' I didn't want to be treated differently."

Strangely, when he learned he might be dying, Nurmi's focus became finishing the book he had been writing about representing Arias. He spent what might have been the last few months of his life rushing the book to market.

It was that important to Nurmi to seek redemption.

"If the public wants to hate me — fine. Just do it on the facts, the reality, not just their impressions from TV," he says. "That's the level of redemption I was seeking."

As Arias' advocate, Nurmi was condemned by her haters simply for presenting her legal defense. But those on her side had nothing but ridicule for him, either, claiming he wasn't doing enough to prove his client's innocence.

"In terms of the court of public opinion, it was a no-win situation," he says. "But I wasn't trying the case in the court of public opinion. I was trying it in a courtroom."

What made the attacks worse was that while the case was ongoing, the ethics of his profession made him unable to respond. And many legal-ethics attorneys think he shouldn't be responding now.

Against the advice of such experts, he recently self-published Trapped with Ms. Arias, the first of a voluminous three-part tome he's writing about the case. The first 300-page book details what led up to the trial.

Arias prosecutor Juan Martinez also wrote a book on the case, Conviction: The Untold Story of Putting Jodi Arias Behind Bars, scheduled to be released by William Morrow this month. Martinez declined to speak with New Times for this story.

Neither Nurmi nor Martinez have anything to do with Arias' continuing case — she has new public defenders for her appeal.

Still, both controversial books are the subject of complaints to the State Bar of Arizona.

Attorney-client privilege mandates that all communications are confidential.

"Attorneys have an ethical obligation of confidentiality to maintain," says Lynda Shely, a Phoenix ethics attorney. "There are a couple exceptions. Writing your memoirs is not one of them."

Ethics attorneys also expressed concern that the books could jeopardize Arias' pending appeal. Nurmi, however, argues that Arias spoke about him and the case in interviews, nullifying those aspects of attorney-client privilege.

Plus, at the time he published the book, Nurmi says, he had little to lose.

A much heavier Nurmi defending Jodi Arias.
A much heavier Nurmi defending Jodi Arias.
Rob Schumacher/Pool/ZUMA Wire via Newscom.com

In August 2009, Kirk Nurmi was poring over documents in a different Phoenix office when he received the case that would change his life.

File in hand, Nurmi's supervisor appeared in the doorway.

"It's a unique case," his boss explained.

The defendant was a 28-year-old aspiring photographer named Jodi Arias who was accused of slaughtering her ex-boyfriend, 30-year-old Mormon businessman Travis Alexander. On June 4, 2008, Alexander's decomposed corpse had been discovered crumpled in a shower stall at his Mesa home. He had been shot in the face, stabbed 27 times, and his throat slit from ear to ear.

Flipping through the file, Nurmi realized the case would be a huge — if not insurmountable — challenge.

The evidence included Arias' DNA and hair found at the crime scene, along with a bloody palm print made up of both her and Alexander's blood. Most peculiarly, explicit images of Arias — including close-ups of her anus and vagina — were recovered from Alexander's camera. Not long after the sexual pictures were snapped, Alexander was photographed in the shower as he was getting butchered.

About a month after the slaying, Arias was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The state sought the death penalty.

Reflecting back, Nurmi says there was no way he could have known that the case would consume the next five years of his life, much less take such a great personal toll.

"They say everything happens for a reason," he muses. "But there is certainly a part of me that wonders what course my life would have taken if I had just said no, walked out of the office, and never looked back."

When he first met Arias in jail, Nurmi learned that his weird new client liked to talk — often about nothing to do with the case. Their initial jailhouse visit was more akin to chatting with a stranger at Starbucks.

In subsequent visits, Arias did not press him about anything related to the case. In fact, she didn't seem to care about her upcoming trial. Instead, he says, she was flirtatious, discussing topics such as how she preferred to groom her pubic hair.

"Ms. Arias was testing me because it was important to her to figure out how she could get me to follow her wishes. I was the most significant male relationship in her life. I took that to mean that in her sick, twisted mind, she saw me as her [new] boyfriend."

When Nurmi first received the case, he says, Arias told a fantastical tale about two mysterious black-clad intruders who had murdered Alexander in his home and let her escape unharmed.

She detailed this curious account in on-camera interviews with true-crime shows 48 Hours Mystery and Inside Edition, during which she also dared a jury to find her guilty.

To Nurmi, it was apparent that Arias was lying. It made no sense to him that she would tell such an unbelievable story on national television.

"A lot of people thought that I sought out Ms. Arias as a client. Or Ms. Arias was my client because I believed her claims of self-defense or the 'ninja story,'" he says. "At the time, she was not the infamous Ms. Arias. She was just another client."

Despite his disbelief of her story, Nurmi, was forced, as her attorney, to prepare a defense that matched her account.

Then, one morning, he received an e-mail that would change the case completely.

Arias listens to testimony during her first trial.
Arias listens to testimony during her first trial.
David Wallace/Pool/Prensa Internacional/ZUMA Wire via Newscom.com

Before January 2, 2013, Kirk Nurmi was a little-known defense attorney living in the East Valley with his wife and their four-pound Chihuahua, Holly.

It wasn't his dream to be a high-profile attorney, and he sought no recognition for his work.

"Anonymity is one of those things you never think you are going to lose," he says. "It's one of those things you take for granted."

As a seasoned defense attorney handling capital cases, Nurmi had earned a solid reputation among his peers. A staunch opponent of the death penalty, he found it gratifying to save the lives of indigent clients.

"I don't consider myself an advocate for the bad guy," he says. "I consider myself an advocate for the Constitution."

Raised in Seattle by his parents and maternal grandparents, Nurmi didn't dream of becoming an attorney.

He graduated from high school at 16 and bagged groceries while taking classes at a community college. He wanted to be a cop, but after he was rejected by several police departments, he returned to school.

Uncertain of his next career move, he obtained a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in history and psychology from Washington State University before setting his sights on becoming a defense attorney.

By the time he graduated from law school at the University of Wyoming, he was in his early 30s. Along the way, he had met and married his wife, an educator.

Following law school, Nurmi was hired as a law clerk at the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office.

"I had one other job offer in another state. Had I taken that offer, you wouldn't know who I am," he laments in his book. "I would have been just another anonymous spectator of the [Arias] trial, not a participant."

A year after moving to Arizona, Nurmi passed the bar and received his license to practice law.

Within six months, he tried his first felony case in front of a jury — and won. A few years later, he moved into the capital defense unit and handled two cases in which the state sought to execute the defendant.

One client received life, one got death.

"When the client received death — that was a feeling that I really did not want to have to experience ever again," he says. "The jury was crying, the defendant's family was crying. Nearly everyone in the courtroom was crying."

Nurmi quickly learned that his mission — unlike that of most defense attorneys — was not to secure not-guilty verdicts. It was to win life in prison and, thus, help clients escape the death penalty.

When he took on Arias' case, that's exactly what his focus became: saving her from execution.

"My goal was to somehow save Ms. Arias' life," he recalls. "All I needed was a plan of how to do so."

Early on a Monday morning in April 2010, Nurmi had the first of many surreal and bizarre moments in the Arias case.

He was going through his morning routine of tuning into sports talk radio before flipping on his computer and slogging through e-mails when he came upon an unusual correspondence.

The sender was someone claiming to be "Bob White." In the message, "White" said he didn't want to get involved in the case but wanted Nurmi to have some information.

Attached to the e-mail were 10 digital documents — copies of handwritten letters supposedly signed by Travis Alexander. The letters contained dark confessions involving disturbing acts of pedophilia and sexual deviance.

"I have desires I can't explain," read one letter. "What's worse is I've acted on those desires. I have hurt children because of urges I can't control. I can't help it. I know it's pure evil, but I can't stop."

In another letter, the supposed Alexander admitted to having been violent with Jodi Arias, once breaking her finger and kicking her in the ribs.

Mysteriously, the letters seemed to arrive at the most opportune moment for Arias.

Just weeks earlier, she had changed her story about the murder.

She then admitted she killed Alexander — but she claimed she did it in self-defense after he had attacked her when she dropped his new digital camera during a steamy shower photo shoot.

Before the arrival of the e-mailed letters reputed to be from Alexander, however, there had been no evidence to support her claims.

At first, Nurmi believed the letters were valuable evidence. He spent months investigating them and attempting, unsuccessfully, to track down the mysterious "Bob White."

He changed his mind about the validity of the letters after jail guards searching Arias' cell discovered pens and index cards on which Arias appeared to have been trying to simulate Alexander's handwriting.

"Once the [index cards] were found, it was my personal belief that Ms. Arias wrote the letters," Nurmi recalls. "However, what I personally believed was irrelevant. As her attorney, I had to consider how this evidence would sit with a jury."

If jury members learned the cards were forgeries, it would damage the case irreparably, he knew. Yet Arias was adamant that the letters proved her innocence.

For months, Nurmi quarreled with his client over the letters and about overall legal strategy for the case.

Meanwhile, the attorney attempted to negotiate a plea that would save Arias from execution. By then, he believed she was a deeply disturbed young woman who had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

But prosecutor Martinez balked at the plea. His case for premeditated, first-degree murder was overwhelmingly strong. And it seemed to Nurmi that Martinez wouldn't be satisfied with any sentence other than death.

The case was headed to trial.

After more than a year as her counsel, Nurmi had grown to loathe Jodi Arias.

Not only was she self-destructive, manipulative, inappropriate, and just plain unlikable, she was pushing a legal strategy that he believed would send her to death row.

She was intent on claiming that her victim was an abusive pedophile. To Nurmi, it seemed that Arias cared more about disparaging her slain lover than the outcome of her case.

"I knew where this case was going in terms of the evidence," he says. "I wasn't interested in being a part of her plan to attack Mr. Alexander."

The case was absurdly complicated, and Arias was a source of constant frustration for Nurmi. He spent countless hours poring over police reports, text messages, and e-mails, in addition to interviewing witnesses, speaking to experts, and consulting with Arias. Weekly jailhouse visits stretched past two hours, and her daily calls from prison consumed additional hours.

He believed that remaining on the case was damaging his career.

But disliking a defendant isn't a valid legal reason for an attorney to withdraw.

In an attempt to rid himself of Arias, Nurmi quit his job at the Public Defender's Office in early 2011.

He planned to partner with longtime friend and fellow attorney Caroline Aeed to build a private defense practice. He filed a motion to withdraw, which would require the judge's approval, and his supervisors arranged for another attorney in the office to take over the big case.

When Arias found out, she was stunned and incensed. She felt that Nurmi should feel privileged to be her attorney.

"Not only was Ms. Arias very unhappy with my plans but . . . the plan I had for my career was not acceptable to her," he writes in his book. "She believed that I should put my aspirations to go into private practice aside and endure her trial because she wanted me to."

Arias took extreme measures to keep Nurmi bound to her cause. After numerous failed attempts to convince him that he must remain, Arias wrote a letter to the judge detailing how important her lead counsel was to her case and how "unethical" it would be for him to leave it unresolved.

To Nurmi's disbelief, the judge sided with Arias and rejected his motion to withdraw, forcing him to remain as her attorney under a private contract.

When the Public Defender's Office can't represent an indigent client, the county routinely contracts with a private attorney at a rate of $125 an hour. The county later would increase Nurmi's rate to $225 an hour.

Arizona taxpayers ultimately would pay an estimated $3 million for Arias' defense, which includes costs of expert witnesses, attorney salaries, and other expenses. "I got paid to represent Ms. Arias, but it was always against my will, and it was not truly worth it," he writes in his book. "Representing [her] took up the bulk of my time. It prevented me from starting my own practice. Heck, it may even [have prevented] me from ever having a real practice."

Nurmi was trapped with a client he resented.

And now Arias was "super-pissed" that he wanted to leave her in the first place, he says.

Arias' poor treatment of him worsened, he says. When they disagreed, she threw jailhouse temper tantrums.

"Behind those screams were threats," he recalls. "She was threatening to ruin my career if I did not follow her demands."

Because she and her case monopolized almost all his waking hours, Nurmi couldn't represent new clients. During the five and a half years he represented Arias, he went to trial on only one other case.

Now that he was advocating for Arias as a private attorney, Nurmi had to rent office space in a Phoenix business owned by Caroline Aeed. Soon his office was cluttered with more than 30 boxes of evidence, including video and audio. Nurmi also had to assemble a new legal team, apart from the Public Defender's Office.

Nurmi reached out to young attorney Jennifer Willmott, who became second chair for the defense.

Arias bonded with the new lawyer, coming to prefer Willmott over Nurmi. Willmott declined New Times' request for an interview.

The first day of 2013 was Nurmi's last moment of anonymity. The following day, the trial of Arizona vs. Jodi Ann Arias began.

"If I had known that things would work out the way they did after January 2 . . . I might have driven to the airport instead of the courthouse. I might have instead flown to a country that did not extradite runaway lawyers back to the United States," he writes in his book.

"Instead, I drove to the courthouse, parked my car, and took a deep breath."

With sordid sexual testimony and gruesome crime-scene evidence, the trial of Jodi Arias became a twisted reality TV event.

Avid trial watchers dissected gory details of the crime online while dedicated crime junkies lined up outside the courthouse, fighting over limited courtroom seating.

In this courtroom drama, prosecutor Martinez became the hero to most of those glued to the trial. He was fighting for justice against the villainous Arias while Nurmi and Willmott were her wicked enablers.

Outside the courtroom, a legion of trial followers snapped photos of Martinez and asked for his autograph. Dozens of websites and Facebook pages were dedicated to supporting him.

Conversely, Nurmi and Willmott had to sneak out of the courtroom. Once, they had to be escorted by armed guards.

Online bullies mocked Nurmi's weight and gave him offensive or childish nicknames such as "Squirmy Nurmi." One particularly embarrassing snapshot from the courtroom, in which Nurmi appears to be picking his nose, was turned into an Internet meme.

"In general, the outspoken public was against Jodi Arias and in love with Juan Martinez," says Beth Karas, a former prosecutor and television correspondent who covered the case for Court TV, which discontinued broadcasting following this trial.

Arias did attract a small but loyal group of supporters — most of whom believed she had been sexually abused. Some misguided fans even believed that Arias was framed for the murder by the Mormon Church.

These supporters also criticized Nurmi, claiming he wasn't doing enough to support her wild claims.

In court, Nurmi and Willmott clashed with the prosecutor, saying Martinez bullied witnesses. The defense filed several motions for mistrial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

The pressure of a high-profile death-penalty trial coupled with public scorn was intensely stressful for Nurmi.

"I don't know how a defense attorney can prepare for the level of vitriol and negativity on social media [that Nurmi endured]," Karas says. "You have to tune it all out. And that's what he would do. He would walk in and out of the courtroom not talking to anyone."

Despite his personal feelings about Arias, Nurmi still was dedicated to saving her life — and he had developed a plan to humanize his client.

If she testified, he believed she could forge a connection with at least one juror. Nurmi hoped that one juror perhaps would see she wasn't "right in the head," he says now.

On the stand, Arias testified for an unprecedented 18 days, painting Alexander as a twisted pedophile with sick sexual fantasies. As for the murder, Arias claimed she shot and killed Alexander when he charged at her "like a linebacker," after which she blacked out and had few memories.

Throughout Arias' testimony, the weeping of Alexander's sisters echoed in the courtroom.

As Nurmi had feared, Arias' attempts to taint her victim's memory further outraged most trial watchers and repulsed the jury.

"Overall, the Alexander family and their friends and supporters were offended that Travis was portrayed as an abuser," Karas says. "They felt that victimizing him during the trial was unfair, unnecessary, and untrue."

Because Arias' attorneys were forced to be complicit in this defense, the collective umbrage spread to them.

As Arias' testimony stretched on for weeks, Nurmi got more hate mail and angry phone calls. Aeed says it was difficult to witness her friend's facing such unwarranted scorn.

"The country hated him!" she recalls.

Though Nurmi didn't support Arias' pedophilia claims, he did believe she had been mistreated by Alexander. He presented a defense that portrayed Arias as a troubled young woman who was in a toxic and abusive relationship with Alexander.

Meanwhile, the prosecution presented Arias as an obsessed ex-girlfriend who had stalked Alexander, slashed his tires, and harassed women he dated.

Martinez had the easier job to do. By this time, his depiction of the defendant was the most plausible.

With both hands casually in his pockets, Nurmi paced in front of jurors.

"Fear. Love. Sex. Lies. Dirty little secrets," he said, pausing dramatically between words. "These aspects of the human condition may not be universal. But each one of these aspects of the human condition played a prominent role in the relationship that Jodi Arias shared with Travis Alexander."

It was the morning of May 3, 2013, and Nurmi was delivering his closing arguments in the four-month murder trial.

Aware of the public's disgust for Arias, Nurmi attempted to get jurors to look past their personal perceptions of her.

"It's not about whether or not you like Jodi Arias," he said. "Nine days out of 10, I don't like Jodi Arias."

At the defense table, Arias flashed a wide smile before returning to a blank expression.

The comment was not the public's first hint of the animosity between Nurmi and Arias. He and Willmott had attempted, unsuccessfully, to withdraw as her attorneys multiple times. Still, Nurmi's closing comment would be one of the more memorable segments of the trial.

Nurmi can't repress a smirk when asked if what he told the jurors was true.

"It wasn't that I liked her on the 10th day," he says. "There were just some days I didn't have to think about her."

The jury didn't like Arias, either. After deliberating for 15 hours over the course of three days, they reached a verdict: guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder.

As the verdict was read, Arias blinked hard and, eyes welling with tears, glanced back at her sobbing mother.

Following the verdict, Arias gave a series of interviews in which she blamed her conviction on Nurmi, saying he botched her defense.

Later, she attempted to have Nurmi fired, writing to the judge that Nurmi had "little to no tolerance" for her "emotional and psychological shortcomings." Her motion was denied.

By this point, Nurmi says, he was numb to her criticism.

"In order for it to be a kick in the gut, I would have to give a crap about what Ms. Arias thought of me or the job I did," he says.

Yet during Arias' sentencing phase, Nurmi stood before the jury and delivered a passionate argument for why her life should be spared.

Nurmi got to four of the 12 jurors, who refused to go for the death penalty. A mistrial was declared.

Under Arizona law, this meant the prosecution had the option of convening a second jury to decide on her sentence, which is what Martinez called for.

For Nurmi, it was a maddening twist, because he would have to go to trial with Arias again.

In October 2014, a year and a half after the mistrial, a second jury convened for the penalty phase.

By then, Nurmi and Arias no longer were communicating. They wouldn't speak to each other for this entire trial — despite sitting at the same courtroom table for 19 weeks.

Once again, Nurmi argued that Arias was a disturbed woman in a toxic relationship who didn't deserve to die for her crimes.

After deliberating 26 hours over five days, the jury deadlocked once again, with one panel member insisting on life in prison for the killer.

Another mistrial was declared. In accordance with Arizona law, the death penalty no longer was an option and sentencing became the duty of the judge, who had the option of choosing life in prison with or without the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Arias, in black-and-white jailhouse stripes, stood before the bench with Wilmott when she was sentenced on April 13, 2015.

It was a silent snub to Nurmi, who remained at the defense table.

The judge locked eyes with Arias while delivering the sentence:

"It is ordered that the defendant shall be incarcerated in the Department of Corrections for the rest of her natural life with no possibility of parole," the judge said. "The sentence shall begin today."

Though Nurmi had saved Arias' life, the win felt hollow.

Nurmi got his devastating cancer diagnosis not long after the trial concluded.

When reflecting on his health today, he says the stress of representing Arias for more than five year couldn't have been beneficial to his health.

"I've learned with this cancer diagnosis that I probably took my health for granted," he says.

With his first book complete and his cancer in remission, he's now attempting to build a private defense practice.

He's had few clients.

"He hasn't had any referrals from the trial — people are not calling the office saying I need Kirk to represent me," Aeed says. "He's been really demonized. Everyone hates Jodi so much that they [still] project that hatred onto him."

Nurmi believes defendants are reluctant to hire him because they think he's still a public defender or that he represents only those accused of murder.

Perhaps, he muses, criminals are reluctant to hire him because Arias didn't get away with murder.

"It was a guilty verdict. People view it as a loss," he says. "They don't know what my ultimate goal was."

In his new practice, Nurmi plans to specialize in representing defendants in sex crimes. He continues to operate his practice out of Aeed's office space, although their onetime plans to partner are postponed indefinitely.

"I don't think we'll ever join, just because of the scrutiny," Aeed says. "How does a person turn around his public image. You never get your reputation back when it's gone."

Nurmi hopes this isn't true, but he laments: "I think no matter what I do, I will always be tied to Ms. Arias. I'm sure that if there is an obituary when I die, it will read: 'Jodi Arias' former attorney.'"

From Our Sponsors


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >