Allegations of misconduct sidetrack Arias trial

March 29, 2013 - 12:28 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — The Jodi Arias murder trial became even more of a spectacle Thursday as defense attorneys argued that the prosecutor committed misconduct by signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans outside court.

The argument prompted the judge to call a cable TV legal analyst to testify, and she was asked about what she has witnessed as dozens of trial watchers gather on a daily basis to see people involved in the case.

Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi argued that the interaction could taint the jury pool.

"I believe that this misconduct may very well have been seen by jurors," Nurmi told the judge.

The argument played out as officials revealed that the cost of Arias' defense to taxpayers has exceeded $1.4 million to date. Arias is represented by court-appointed attorneys at a rate of up to $250 per hour after she was unable to afford her own defense.

The trial has dragged on for about three months and become a cable TV and tabloid sensation with tales of sex, betrayal, religion and a bloody killing, attracting a following of thousands who can watch it streamed live via the Web.

It has become such a curiosity that people have made trips to the courthouse to see the trial, many to congratulate prosecutor Juan Martinez for his performance.

"I came here from San Antonio, Texas. I've been watching the trial. You're doing a great job," said a man who approached Martinez inside the courtroom this week.

Martinez has on at least one occasion exited the building through the front door and was surrounded by trial watchers offering him praise. He has declined to discuss the case outside court.

In a video posted on azcentral.com last week, Martinez is seen posing for pictures and even autographing the cane of a woman who has been watching the trial.

"There were several individuals interviewed about how great he is," Nurmi said. "It's entirely possible that more than one juror saw this."

At least one juror sometimes lingers outside the courthouse after the trial has concluded for the day while spectators mull around, cameras at the ready, waiting for Martinez and others to emerge.

On Thursday, Judge Sherry Stephens privately questioned each juror about whether they had witnessed Martinez's interactions with the crowd. Jurors in the case are not sequestered and are warned daily by the judge to avoid media coverage of the trial.

Within an hour of testimony ending Thursday, the juror who has been seen in the past outside the courthouse after trial sat eating ice cream on a bench near a group of spectators who were waiting for the prosecutor.

Martinez chose to take a different exit Thursday afternoon and avoided the scene.

"Defense counsel may not like that people have come up to the prosecutor and asked him whatever they may have asked him," Martinez told judge. "That is not misconduct."

It was unclear when Stephens would rule on the issue.

The judge called to the witness stand Jean Casarez, a correspondent and legal analyst with Turner Broadcasting's In Session, who had made comments on air about the scene.

"I said I have seen a juror just sitting outside the front door of the courthouse," Casarez said. "And I said my concern would be if a juror would see that, that would be my concern."

However, she added, "I never saw it personally."

Another In Session employee is set to be questioned by the judge when the trial resumes Tuesday.

Arias faces a possible death sentence if convicted of first-degree murder in the June 2008 killing of Travis Alexander in his suburban Phoenix home.

Authorities say she planned the attack on her lover in a jealous rage. Arias initially denied involvement then blamed it on two masked intruders. Two years after her arrest, she said it was self-defense.

After arguments over the misconduct allegation Thursday, testimony resumed with a domestic violence expert explaining how Arias was vulnerable at the time she met Alexander and had a hard time declining his sexual advances.

Psychotherapist Alyce LaViolette has spent about three days on the witness stand largely discussing the traits of victims and abusers in generalities.

On Thursday, she explained that she spent more than 40 hours interviewing Arias and referred to several movies, including "Sleeping with the Enemy," as she described how battered women react differently to abusive partners.

During 18 days on the witness stand, Arias described an abusive childhood, including her father belittling her mother, cheating boyfriends, dead-end jobs, a shocking sexual relationship with Alexander, and her contention that he had grown physically violent in the months leading to his death.

LaViolette said Arias' upbringing shaped her belief about relationships.

"She said, 'I learned about loyalty,'" LaViolette said. "She said, 'I think I must have learned about giving up the things I want for somebody I love.'"

LaViolette is working to explain why Arias continued seeing Alexander even after she says he grew physically abusive.

However, there has been no testimony other than Arias' and no evidence at trial to corroborate the defendant's claims that Alexander had ever been physically violent in the past.

Alexander suffered nearly 30 knife wounds, was shot in the head and had his throat slit. Arias' palm print was found in blood at the scene, along with her hair and nude photos of her and the victim from the day of the killing.

Arias said she recalls Alexander attacking her in a fury after a day of sex. She said she ran into his closet to retrieve a gun he kept on a shelf and fired in self-defense but has no memory of stabbing him.

She acknowledged trying to clean the scene, dumping the gun in the desert and working on an alibi to avoid suspicion. She said she was too scared and ashamed to tell the truth at the time but insists she isn't lying now.