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Jury foreman says life or death decision unfair

Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013 8:37 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, May 25, 2013 8:41 a.m. CDT
Caption
(David Wallace)
Jodi Arias stands as the jury enters the courtroom Thursday before the verdict for sentencing was declared a hung jury for her first degree murder conviction at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Wallace, Pool)

PHOENIX — They were 12 ordinary citizens who didn't oppose the death penalty. But unlike spectators outside the courthouse who followed the case like a daytime soap opera and jumped to demand Jodi Arias' execution, the jurors faced a decision that was wrenching and real, with implications that could haunt them forever.

In an interview Friday, jury foreman William Zervakos provided a glimpse into the private deliberations, describing four women and eight men who struggled with the question: How heinous of a killing deserves a similar fate?

"The system we think is flawed in that sense because this was not a case of a Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson," Zervakos told The Associated Press.

"It was a brutal no-win situation. ... I think that's kind of unfair," the 69-year-old added. "We're not lawyers. We can't interpret the law. We're mere mortals. And I will tell you I've never felt more mere as a mortal than I felt for the last five months."

Zervakos said the most difficult time of the entire trial was hearing directly from victim Travis Alexander's family as his brother and sister tearfully explained how his killing has shattered their lives.

"There was no sound in that jury room for a long time after that because you hurt so bad for these people," he said. "But that wasn't evidence. That's what made it so hard. ... This wasn't about them. This was a decision whether we're going to tell somebody they were going to be put to death or spend the rest of their life in prison."

Zervakos described a deliberations room full of tears and spinning moral compasses as each juror struggled to come to grips with their own beliefs about what factors — including Arias' young age at the time of the killing and her lack of criminal history — should cause them to show mercy and spare her life.

"You've got Travis Alexander's family devastated, that he was killed, that he was brutally killed. You've got Jodi Arias' family sitting in there, both families sitting and seeing these humiliating images and listening to unbelievably lurid private details of their lives, and you've got a woman whose life is over, too," Zervakos said. "I mean, who's winning in this situation? And we were stuck in the middle."

Zervakos declined to discuss his thoughts or those of other jurors on whether Arias should have been sentenced to death or life. But he said he was torn between her two personas: a killer and an average young woman struggling through life.

"You heard (prosecutor Juan) Martinez say she was only 27. ... She's old enough that she should have known better," Zervakos said. "I didn't look at it that way. I'm looking at 27 years of an absolutely normal everyday young woman that was living a life that was perfectly normal. Then something changed the trajectory of her life after meeting Travis Alexander, and it spiraled downhill from there."

The same jury on May 8 convicted Arias of first-degree murder in Alexander's killing, but couldn't reach a decision Thursday after about 13 hours of deliberations on whether she should live or die.

Judge Sherry Stephens was forced to declare a mistrial of the penalty phase and dismissed the panel.

A conference with the judge and attorneys is set for June 20 to determine how both sides want to proceed. In the interim, Stephens set a July 18 retrial date.

The mistrial set the stage for a whole new proceeding to determine whether the 32-year-old former waitress should get a life sentence or the death penalty for murdering Alexander five years ago.

Arias stabbed and slashed him nearly 30 times, slit his throat slit and shot him in the forehead. Prosecutors said she attacked Alexander in a jealous rage after he wanted to end their relationship and planned a trip to Mexico with another woman. Arias contends it was self-defense.

Prosecutors now have the option to take the death penalty off the table and avoid a new penalty phase. The judge would then determine whether to sentence Arias to spend her entire life behind bars, or give her life with the possibility of release after 25 years. Given Arias could not afford her own defense, taxpayers footed the bill for court-appointed attorneys at a cost so far of nearly $1.7 million, a price tag that will only balloon if the case moves forward.

Should the state decide to seek death again, jury selection alone could take months, given the difficulty of seating an impartial panel in a case that has attracted global attention and become daily cable TV and tabloid fodder with tales of sex, lies and violence, said jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius.

"Will it be impossible? No. Will it be tough? Absolutely," she said.

Dimitrius noted that jury selection in the widely publicized trial of infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the "Night Stalker," who is on death row in California, took six months as attorneys weeded through more than 2,000 prospective jurors.

If Arias faces a new penalty phase, her murder conviction would stand, leaving the new panel tasked only with sentencing her. However, the proceedings could drag on for several more months as the new jury reviews evidence and witness testimony.

If the second jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge would then sentence Arias to one of the life-in-prison options. The judge cannot sentence Arias to death.

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