Jodi Arias trial brings up issue of capital punishment

Does anyone even care what happens to Jodi Arias at this point?

Someone must, or her four-month long trial would not have been televised nor turned into the media circus it has become. Arias herself took the stand in her defense and her testimony lasted 18 days. Eighteen days to explain how and why she had killed former boyfriend Travis Alexander on June 4, 2008 after the two had sex. He was shot and then stabbed nearly 30 times and his throat was slashed; she claimed he’d become abusive and violent.

the sentencing phase of her trial at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. If the jury finds aggravating factors in her crime, Arias could be sentenced to death. Jodi Arias was convicted of first-degree murder in the stabbing and shooting death of Travis Alexander, 30, in his suburban Phoenix home in June 2008. (The Arizona Republic, Rob Schumacher, Pool/Associated Press)
Jody Arias looks at the family of Travis Alexander as the jury arrived May 15.  (The Arizona Republic, Rob Schumacher, Pool/Associated Press)

 

A Phoenix, Ariz. jury found her guilty of first degree murder May 8 and a week later decided she was eligible for the death penalty because it was done “with cruelty.” On Tuesday, the jury began deliberations on sentencing after hearing from both sides whether Arias should face the death penalty or life in prison.

Arias told Fox affiliate KSAZ minutes after her conviction she preferred to die rather than live out her life in prison. “Death is the ultimate freedom,” she said. Then she changed her mind, and spoke to the jury Tuesday in an attempt to save her life as she described the contributions she could make in prison if her life were spared:

She’s grown her hair down to her waist before and donated it to Locks of Love; she could do that again, she told the jury members. She understood that literacy rates are down in prison; she would help teach other women how to read. Maybe she could start a book club or reading group, too.

Then she pulled out a T-shirt with the word “Survivor” on the front in a show-and-tell gesture: She could sell the shirts and donate the profits to victims of domestic abuse. That little scenario, replayed on the news, just felt wrong for so many reasons.

Arias claimed to be a victim of abuse at one point in the trial. Apparently, she claimed a lot of things before and during the trial. For me — and the many others who haven’t been paying attention – CNN offers a primer. Or you can cut to the chase and get ABC’s list of the trial’s nine most shocking moments (most of which have to do with sex). Then again, you don’t have long to wait for the movie version: Lifetime has announced “Dirty Little Secret” will premiere June 22.

The movie promises plenty of sex, but from what I’ve heard, there was no lack of salacious details in the trial, with descriptions of phone, oral and anal sex, and that may explain the public’s fascination with the case.

“It’s all about the sex,” Michele Samit, a Los Angeles screenwriter and movie producer told me.

Perhaps the public should instead be wondering whether Arias deserves the death penalty, or whether any prisoner in the United States should be executed. Mother-daughter attorneys Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom debated that point on HLN’s “After Dark,” a show spawned by the trial.

“If there is anyone who should get the death penalty, it’s Jodi Arias,” Allred said, while Bloom pointed out that most countries in the Western world had outlawed executions.

One argument against the death penalty, of course, is the danger of executing the innocent. The play “Exonerated,” which I got to know well when my daughter’s high school theater department produced it several years ago, tackles this issue. The case of Jesse Tafeo is included, but it’s not as black-and-white as the drama would lead the audience to believe. What is undisputed is the fact that Florida’s electric chair malfunctioned and Tafeo’s death was gruesome.

And there is the issue of whether capital punishment robs the guilty of the chance for repentance. The United Methodist Church, to which I belong, is opposed to the death penalty because it “denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings,” according to the church’s social principles.

This past month we’ve heard a demand for the death penalty for the Cleveland man who allegedly held three young women captive for a decade, for the Boston bomber suspect and for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. But why? As Mary C. Curtis wrote, “When justice doesn’t seem quite enough, is vengeance the only thing that will do?”

I did watch the trial of Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted of kidnapping Victoria Jo Stinnett, resulting in the death of her mother, Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Bobbie Jo was my cousin’s daughter, and she was killed Dec. 16, 2004 in Skidmore, Mo., by Montgomery for her baby in a gruesome and horrific do-it-yourself C-section.

Zeb Stinnett, background center, watches as pallbearers carry the casket of his wife and high school sweetheart to her burial site in Skidmore, Mo. (Jessica A. Stewart -- St. Joseph News-press Via AP)
Zeb Stinnett, background center, watches as pallbearers carry the casket of his wife and high school sweetheart to her burial site in Skidmore, Mo. (Jessica A. Stewart — St. Joseph News-press Via AP)

On the second day of the trial when the crime scene and autopsy photos were shown, a medical examiner testified that there was blood on the soles of Bobbie Jo’s feet because she had stood up, after her belly was carved open with a kitchen knife, to try to fight off her attacker. Strands of Montgomery’s hair were found in Bobbie Jo’s hands.

I was sitting with Bobbie Jo’s mother and grandmother, as I did every day of that trial. I’ll never forget seeing those photos. I’ll never forget listening to the 911 call from Becky Harper, Bobbie Jo’s mom, who found her daughter’s body in a blood-soaked room. She told the dispatcher her pregnant daughter’s stomach looked like “it had exploded” and kept crying, “Wake up, Bobbie Jo, wake up.”

Bobbie Jo Stinnett (Courtesy of Becky Harper)
Bobbie Jo Stinnett (Courtesy of Becky Harper)

I wrote the statement for Harper to read to the media at the end of the trial in the only time she ever spoke to reporters, after the jury had decided on the death penalty. Then I promised my cousin I’d go with her to Terre Haute, Ind. when Montgomery is executed.

Is it vengeance? Or justice? For as long as Montgomery lives, even though she’s in prison, she can enjoy the company of her three daughters and one son.

But Harper will never see her only daughter again.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

 

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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Diana Reese · May 21, 2013