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Judge Sherry Stephens postpones Jodi Arias Sentencing Retrial

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Attorney Jason Chan

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Life in prison or the death penalty?  Convicted killer Jodi Arias and those following her trial will have to wait at least a few more weeks to learn her fate.  The judge presiding over the trial, Judge Sherry Stephens, has just delayed setting the retrial date until mid-September.  The retrial will focus on the sole issue of whether Arias should get the death penalty or life in prison.  According to the Boston Herald, Judge Stephens wants to provide prosecutors an opportunity to respond to last minute defense motions.

Background

On May 8th, an Arizona jury convicted Jodi Arias of first-degree murder in the stabbing and shooting death of Travis Alexander. Arias claimed that she killed the Mormon businessman in self-defense.   However, prosecutors alleged that it was premeditated murder.  They argued that Arias killed Alexander in a jealous rage after learning that he wanted to end their affair and go to Mexico with another woman.  The jury ultimately believed the prosecution and unanimously found Arias guilty of murder.   In capital cases — crimes where the death penalty is possible – each member of the jury must also agree on the sentence.   Here the failure of the Arias jury to reach a unanimous decision about the death penalty resulted in a hung jury.  Arias now await a new trial with a new jury seated solely to decide her fate — life in prison or the death penalty.

What Factors Does A Jury Consider In Death Penalty Cases?

The first determination a jury must make in capital cases is whether a particular defendant is eligible for the death penalty.  This conclusion occurs at the end of the trial and before sentencing.   In most states, including Arizona where this trial occurred, aggravating factors must exist to warrant the death penalty.  Aggravating factors include any condition, or event relating to crime, that adds to the “wrongfulness” of a crime or increase its harm.

Here, the decision that Arias is eligible for the death penalty has already been made.  The first jury determined that Arias was “especially cruel” in the manner that she killed Alexander.  Evidence showed that Arias stabbed Alexander 27 times, slashed his throat, and shot him in the head.  Prosecutors argued that Alexander suffered mental, emotional, and physical anguish during the bloody attack and that Arias knew she was causing him to suffer.

Judge Sherry Stephens has denied Arias attorney’s motion to set aside this finding.  As a result, the death penalty remains a possibility for her.

The Death Penalty Process: The Sentencing Phase

Once a jury finds that a person is “eligible” for the death penalty, the case moves on to the sentencing phase. This portion of the trial is now in limbo in the Arias trial.  In the sentencing phase, a defendant’s attorney and family members can present “mitigating arguments and factors” to spare someone’s life. Mitigating factors include any fact, condition, or event that makes the death penalty less appropriate as a punishment.  Rather than excusing a crime, the purpose of these arguments is to reduce the amount of blame a jury feels a defendant deserves.

The family members of the victim may also speak.  These statements can be very influential in capital cases and weigh heavily on the minds of jurors.

After both sides have had an opportunity to present all aggravating and mitigating factors to the court, a jury (or sometimes a judge) will then determine the defendant’s fate.

In this instance, if the second jury fails to reach a unanimous decision the death penalty would automatically be removed from consideration.  It will then be up to Judge Sherry Stevens to determine whether Arias will spend her entire life behind bars or be eligible for release after 25 years.

Judge Stephens hopes to set the date for the re-trial in September.  In the meantime, Arias’ fate remains unknown.


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