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Judge in Jodi Arias case considers September trial date

PHOENIX — A new jury could be impaneled sometime in late September to decide whether Jodi Arias should be sentenced to death or life in prison, a judge said Tuesday, as attorneys continued to file motions and kept mum on any talk of a deal to resolve the case without another trial.

Arias was convicted May 8 of first-degree murder in the stabbing and shooting death of boyfriend Travis Alexander in his suburban Phoenix home. About two weeks later, the same jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on her sentence.

Her case is now in limbo as prosecutors decide whether to put on another penalty phase with a new jury in pursuit of the death penalty or take the death penalty off the table, a move that would either see Arias spend the rest of her life behind bars or be eligible for release after 25 years. That decision would be up to the judge.

Meanwhile, her attorneys are seeking to have set aside the jury's determination that Arias killed her onetime lover in an "especially cruel" manner. That finding meant that Arias was eligible for the death penalty.

Arias' attorneys argue that the definition of "especially cruel" is too vague for jurors with no legal experience to determine what makes one killing more cruel or heinous than another. Their June motion appears to challenge a landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found a defendant has the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide on the existence of an aggravating factor that makes the defendant eligible for capital punishment.

The Supreme Court in that case, which originated in Arizona, determined that allowing judges to make such findings violated a defendant's constitutional right to a trial by jury. Prosecutors argue that state and federal courts have found that the process continues to pass constitutional muster, and that the defense motion lacks merit.

Judge Sherry Stephens gave defense attorneys until Aug. 5 to file final motions supporting their arguments. She set another status conference in the case for Aug. 26.

"It appears there are a number of issues that are unresolved so I am reluctant to set a firm trial date for the penalty phase retrial at this time," Stephens told attorneys Tuesday.

However, she said, "Parties should work toward beginning trial in late September. That is my intention."

Tuesday's hearing lasted less than an hour. Arias was escorted into the courtroom, wearing shackles and dressed in striped jail clothes, by three heavily armed deputies, one carrying a shotgun.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has said the state is still preparing to seek the death penalty again for Arias, but would consider resolving the case without another trial after consultation with the victim's family and defense lawyers, among other things. He said the cost of the case would play no role in his office's decision on retrying Arias.

Taxpayers footed the bill for Arias' court-appointed attorneys throughout her nearly five-month trial at a cost so far of nearly $1.7 million, a total that will only balloon if the case moves forward.

Montgomery has declined to publicly release the cost his office incurred prosecuting the case.

Just seating a new impartial jury could take weeks, given the widespread publicity of the trial that captured headlines worldwide with lurid tales of sex, betrayal and a bloody killing. That lengthy process would be followed by reading testimony and evidence to bring the fresh panel up to speed before jurors would once again attempt to decide whether Arias should live or die.

If the second panel failed to reach a unanimous decision, the death penalty would automatically be removed from consideration, and the judge would sentence Arias to life.

Arias, 33, admitted that she killed Alexander but said it was in self-defense after he attacked her. Prosecutors argued it was premeditated murder carried out in a jealous rage after the victim wanted to end their affair and planned a trip to Mexico with another woman.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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