Jodi Arias in court to face death penalty jury over Arizona murder

PHOENIX (REUTERS) - Jodi Arias, declared eligible for the death penalty a week after she was convicted of murdering an ex-boyfriend in Arizona, returned to court on Thursday for the final sentencing phase of her sensational trial.

A Maricopa County jury deliberated less than two hours on Wednesday, the start of the trial's penalty phase, before ruling that Arias had acted with extreme cruelty in the 2008 fatal stabbing and shooting of Travis Alexander, a finding that qualified her for capital punishment.

Alexander, a 30-year-old businessman and motivational speaker with whom Arias said she was having an on-again, off-again affair, was stabbed 27 times, had his throat slashed and had been shot in the face. His body was found slumped in the shower of his Phoenix-area home.

Prosecutors and defence lawyers are slated to present additional testimony and arguments for the jury to weigh before one last round of deliberations that will determine whether Arias is sentenced to death or to life in prison.

In a development that seemed to signal tensions between Arias and members of her legal team, court documents released on Thursday disclosed that defense attorneys recently asked for permission to withdraw from the case. But Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens denied the request.

The prosecution plans to call relatives and friends of Alexander to deliver "victim impact statements" about the toll his slaying has taken on their lives. The judge denied a defence request to have those statements presented by video.

The defence, in turn, is expected to revisit its claim that Arias acted out of fear, and that her relationship with Alexander was fraught with abuse and efforts by Alexander to control her.

In arguing against the death penalty, the defense can try to establish one of several mitigating factors recognised under Arizona law, the most relevant of which would likely be a claim that Arias acted under "unusual or substantial duress".

The jury rejected Arias' claims of self-defense when it found her guilty last week of premeditated murder, capping a four-month trial during which the petite former waitress from California took the witness stand to testify in her own defense.

It was not certain whether she would opt to make any further statements in court before the jury renders its sentence.

SUICIDE WATCH

The reasons for Arias' lawyers asking to step down were not immediately clear. Their motion was made during a closed hearing, and defense attorneys Kirk Nurmi and Jennifer Willmott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It came after Arias, 32, said in a post-conviction television interview that she would prefer the death penalty to life in prison. She was placed on suicide watch in a psychiatric ward following the interview, but was returned to her jail cell on Monday.

Arias has admitted shooting Alexander and said she opened fire on him with his own pistol when he attacked her in a rage because she dropped his camera while taking snapshots of him in the shower. She said she did not remember stabbing him.

The lurid circumstances of the case, which went to trial in January and featured graphic testimony, photographs of the blood-sprayed crime scene and a sex tape, became a sensation on cable television news and unfolded in live Internet telecasts of the proceedings.

On Wednesday, prosecutors focused on details of the murder in their bid to cast the crime as especially cruel, a legal standard for aggravating factors that qualify for the death sentence.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez said Arias had repeatedly stabbed Alexander for two minutes as he tried to escape from the bathroom. She then followed the bleeding victim down a hallway and slashed his throat when he was too weak to get away.

Alexander knew he was going to die and was unable to resist his attacker at that point, Mr Martinez said.

"Each and every time that blade went into his body, it hurt," Mr Martinez told the jury. "It was only death that relieved that pain. It was only death that relieved that anguish, and that is especially cruel."

The defence argued that adrenaline would have prevented Alexander from feeling the pain of the knife blows. If he were shot in the forehead first, rendering him unconscious in seconds, he would not have suffered, Mr Nurmi said.

During the trial, Mr Martinez cast Arias as manipulative and prone to jealousy in previous relationships. He said she had meticulously planned to kill Alexander.

Mr Martinez said Arias also lied after the slaying to deflect any suspicion that she had been involved in his death, leaving a voicemail on Alexander's cellphone, sending flowers to his grandmother and telling detectives she was not at the crime scene before changing her story.

Mr Nurmi, meanwhile, argued that Arias had snapped in the "sudden heat of passion" in the moments between a photograph she took showing Alexander alive and taking a shower, and a subsequent picture of his apparently dead body covered in blood.