Jodi Arias Death Penalty Trial to Move Forward After Judge Denies Defense Motions
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens
Court pool photo
The judge in the Jodi Arias penalty-phase trial tossed out a slew of defense motions on Wednesday, including those that suggested prosecutorial misconduct.
That means the most popular courtroom drama in the world right now will go on, for the time being.
Arias, convicted of first-degree murder in May 2013 for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, is fighting for her life in a penalty-phase trial that could lead to her execution. As part of the ongoing tactic of the publicly funded legal team, Arias and her lawyers have alleged that her defense efforts have been harmed, and asked Maricopa County Judge Sherry Stephens -- again -- to either take the death penalty off the table or drop the case entirely.
On Wednesday, Stephens filed a 13-page ruling that examines each of Arias' recent claims -- and dismisses them.
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As we reported in November, Arias claimed that an examination of Alexander's laptop showed that police had deleted pornography from the hard drive. That in turn, hurt Arias' credibility by denying her evidentiary support of her assertion that Alexander was obsessed with child porn.
In the guilt-phase trial, Arias maintained that an argument over the matter led to a fight with Alexander which ended with her killing him in self-defense. The evidence showed, however, that she'd planned the murder in California and attacked the victim brutally while he was in the shower.
Stephens, showing that she's not the wimp some observers think she is, analyzes each of Arias' hairball claims and -- in our humble opinion -- makes the right call about them. Here's the run-down on Arias' motions and Stephens' replies:
The claim: An Arizona Court of Appeals decision sealing the case means that potential defense witnesses can't testify. "Cyber-bullying" is keeping other mitigation witnesses from testifying.
Stephens says: "There are many ways to address the concerns expressed by these potential witnesses." She lists several options. A subpoena could be issued, another witness could testify about whatever the reluctant witness wants to say, witness names could be withheld from the public record, or a witness could testify via video-recordings.
The claim: Test messages were not disclosed in a timely fashion. The prosecution provided text messages sent or received by the victim in October 2010, having previously told Arias the messages weren't available. The messages supposedly contained information that would make Arias look innocent.
Stephens says: Arias failed to prove the Maricopa County Attorney's Office withheld the delayed text messages for any other reason than "technological issues." In addition, Arias has reviewed "many" of Alexander's emails and texts during the case.
The claim: The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office violated Arias' rights by improperly searching her jail cell, by temporarily denying a mitigation specialist to visit her, and by taking a photocopy of a book from her cell she "suspects" of being copied and provided to prosecutor Juan Martinez.
Stephens says: The court already looked at those issues and they're not valid. Arias couldn't prove the jail-cell searches weren't routine. The specialist resumed her visits. And Arias couldn't prove the "book" taken from cell was provided to Martinez.
The claim: Mesa police Detective Esteban Flores gave inconsistent testimony regarding the sequence of injuries to Alexander. Martinez shouldn't have elicited testimony from Flores when he knew it was inconsistent with the testimony of the medical examiner.
This is the "did she shoot first, or stab first" question. Arias says she shot Alexander in self-defense, then stabbed him while he continued to attack her. Flores admitted at trial he was mistaken when he said Kevin Horn, a medical examiner, agreed with him that Alexander was shot first. Horn actually testified it was possible Alexander was shot only after being stabbed more than 20 times and having had his throat slit from ear-to-ear.
Stephens says: "It is for the jury to determine the credibility of witnesses." Flores testified at trial why he had given mistaken testimony. (He said it was based on what he knew at the time.) Both Flores and Horn gave extensive testimony on the findings related to the sequence of wounds. No misconduct by prosecutors has been shown.
The claim: Authorities improperly stalled the turning over of a "mirror image" of Alexander's laptop hard drive. This covers the issue we reported in November about accusations of porn being deleted. Martinez said in his closing argument in the guilt-phase trial that there was no corroborating evidence to show Arias wasn't lying when she claimed she'd caught Alexander looking at child porn on his laptop.
Stephens says: Alexander was killed on June 8. His body was discovered on June 9. On that day, Detective Flores "touched a key on the computer with a pen which awakened it from sleep mode." Doing that caused updates to be downloaded automatically.
The laptop, a Compaq Presario, was impounded the next day. The day after that, on June 11, Mesa PD made a "mirror image" of the hard drive. (Why it's called a "mirror image," we're not sure -- the data's not reversed, is it, techies?)
Prosecutors "disclosed" the computer to the defense. On June 19, 2009, it was turned on and accessed with defense attorneys present. That caused the previously downloaded updates to be installed.
Fast-forward to January 31, 2013. Lonnie Dworkin, an expert witness for the defense, testified that he examined a mirror image of the hard drive. That mirror image was made in December of 2009 by police, and contained changes made to the data when Flores awakened the laptop and when it was turned on that June. Dworkin testified he saw some pornography on the laptop, but wasn't looking for that sort of information.
Another defense expert witness, Bryan Neumeister, testified about the kinds of changes that should have been seen in the hard drive, if it was tampered with.
But John Smith, yet another defense witness, told the court last week he found no porn on the computer, just remnants of links to visited porn sites. He found that no data had been manipulated, and that the porn links "were still present after the alterations" that had been automatically downloaded. On Wednesday, Smith testified there was no evidence any files had been deleted.
"The Court has no basis to find the Mesa Police Department withheld evidence or refused to provide a copy of any evidence to Mr. Dworkin," Stephens writes in her ruling.
Flores didn't intentionally hide the existence of the June 2008 mirror image, and the 2009 mirror image contained the same porn info as the 2008 image, which is an exact image of the hard drive as it existed on June 9, 2008.
Another way to put this: There's nothing of interest there. No prosecutorial misconduct, no devious deletion by Mesa police.
Since Dworkin had testified in 2013 that he saw porn on Alexander's computer, Arias has already had the chance "to pursue the issue." If she brings it up again, Stephens notes, the penalty-phase jury has the "benefit" of the expert computer witnesses' testimony.
Smith had testified he might find more porn links if he had a few more days to examine the hard drive's image. He can be recalled as a witness if and when he finds more potentially relevant evidence.
The claim: Flores' wife put her opinions about the Arias case up on social media sites.
Stephens says: Arias hasn't proved Flores provided his wife with any exclusive information not available to the public. However, the judges notes that Flores' wife stated things that made it seem as though she did have special information. In one tweet, for instance, the wife wrote there was "much condemning evidence and situations that most ppl (sic) never heard by watching the trial."
Stephens "does not take lightly" the accusation that Flores gave his wife privileged information, but the defense hasn't yet provided any evidence to show Flores violated any court order.
The claim: Flores commented or provided information to his wife about the dismissal of a juror.
Stephens says: "Even if the detective had discussed a sealed matter with his wife, Defendant has not shown that her case was affected in any way. The jurors empanelled for the penalty phase retrial were questioned about any knowledge about the case and none of them reference any knowledge of this incident."
The claim: Sheriff Joe Arpaio harassed Arias by making public statements about her case.
Stephens says: In response to media inquiries, Arpaio made several statements about the Arias case -- mostly denials to one allegation or another. Arpaio denied: that inmates have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in order be fed; that county jails were dealing with an outbreak of Hepatitis C; withheld medical treatment for Arias; videotaped Arias in the bathroom; or intercepted her letters. Arias doesn't assert that anything Arpaio said was "inaccurate or misleading." The Arpaio statements haven't prejudiced the case, and no current juror recalled hearing the statements.
The claim: Flores destroyed potential evidence when he awakened Alexander's computer from sleep mode.
Stephens says: "There is no evidence establishing relevant, material data was deleted from the victim's computer or that material evidence was destroyed."
The claim: Evidence may have been destroyed when the computer was accessed in June of 2009.
Stephens says: Any minor changes made the computer by turning it on in 2009 didn't affect the 2008 mirror image. As mentioned above, that image was virtually the same as the 2009 image made and turned over to the defense after the computer was turned on in 2009.
The claim: Previous attorneys were ineffective, as shown by their inability to handle the hard drive evidence correctly.
Stephens says: Any minor errors that may have been made in regards to the hard drive were "harmless."
The claim: Mesa police Detective Michael Melendez testified in 2013 that he found no pornography or viruses on the victim's computer. Forensic examiners later reported finding both viruses and pornography.
Stephens says: The jury needs to sort out the relevance of that one. Melendez could be recalled to the witness stand, if need be.
The claim: Juan Martinez made "insulting and unprofessional" remarks during a bench conference. The comment was publicized.
Stephens says: Martinez apologized and besides, the jury didn't hear the remark.
The claim: Martinez harassed a defense witness by suggesting he had inappropriate feelings for Arias. This refers to a gift given to Arias by Dr. Richard Samuels, who we deemed "Doctor Fog" because of his support for Arias' contention that she couldn't remember anything after she shot Alexander.
Stephens says: Martinez was entitled to "explore the bias, credibility and motive of witnesses."
The claim: Martinez signed an autograph in front of the courthouse. As you may recall, this was for Arias trial superfan Katie Wick.
Stephens says: "While it was a lapse of judgment for a prosecutor to provide an autograph under these circumstances, there was no evidence this incident affected the verdict."
Martinez later said he wouldn't utilize the court's public entrance anymore to avoid a repeat of the incident.
The claim: Some defense witnesses are reluctant to testify.
Stephens says: The judge reiterated some of the options for fearful witnesses that should allay their concerns.
The claim: The "cumulative effect" of all of the prosecutorial misconduct resulted in an unfair trial.
Stephens says: None of the defense motions were granted. Therefore, there's no cumulative effect of anything.
Lastly, the ruling also denies a motion by Martinez for sanctions against the defense. In November, Martinez asked for sanctions when he asked for a copy of the defense's mirror image of Alexander's hard drive and were given the wrong copy initially.
The trial will continue on January 20, after Monday's MLK Jr holiday.
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