By Michael Kiefer, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX - The jury is out in the legal community as to whether Jodi Arias helped herself or hurt herself in her 19 days on the witness stand.
Did the jurors get to know her too well to send her to Death Row? Or did they see her as a craven killer who is lying to save herself?
But there is consensus that 19 days is an unprecedented amount of time for a defendant to stay on the stand, especially considering that defendants usually do not testify at all.
Retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields said, "I just can't envision 19 days of examination of a defendant where she's basically admitted the killings."
Arias, 32, has been on trial in Maricopa County Superior Court since Jan. 2 for the 2008 murder of her secret lover, Travis Alexander. Alexander, 30, was found dead in the shower of his Mesa home with a bullet in his head, nearly 30 stab wounds and a slit throat.
Arias took the witness stand on Feb. 4, and only stepped down at the end of the day Wednesday, after the last of a succession of mind-numbing and often contentious questions from her lead defense attorney, Kirk Nurmi; the prosecutor, Juan Martinez; and more than 200 questions from the jury.
On Thursday the trial will move on to testimony from experts on domestic abuse. The guilt-and-innocence phase of the trial is expected to continue into April.
No one keeps tabs on how long defendants stay on the stand.
"Before 1975, not many murder trials went beyond 19 days," said David Derickson, a defense attorney and former Maricopa County Superior Court judge.
And generally, defendants only testify when their defense depends on a state of mind, in this case, Arias' fear and abuse at the hands of Alexander, which she claims drove her to kill in self-defense.
Consider this: In August 2011, truck driver Michael Jakscht, who was also represented by Arias' co-counsel, Jennifer Willmott, took the stand in his own defense, charged with killing four motorcyclists and injuring others in a horrible crash.
Jakscht spent only two days on the stand. The jury asked him 17 questions. In Arias' 19 days of testimony, the jury asked more than 20 times that many.
Judges and lawyers are unsure what that will mean in her case.
Arias spent nine days under direct examination from Nurmi. She described her salacious sex life with Alexander, who publicly pretended he had broken up with her. And lest anyone think she was making it up, Nurmi showed the explicit nude photos they had taken of each other on the day of the murder, and played an XXX-rated phone sex recording in which Alexander describes the various sex acts he wants to perform and photograph with Arias.
But Arias also described her fights with Alexander, and her deep love for him, including the tender moments.
"I found myself being seduced by her during those days," said Jeffrey Gold, a former prosecutor from New Jersey who frequently does legal commentary for Fox News and Headline News. But as Gold also said, "She certainly gave a lot of rope," the kind that could be used to hang her.
That occurred over the next five days of cross-examination by Martinez.
"Martinez is notorious for being verbally combative," Phoenix defense attorney Richard Gierloff said.
And indeed Arias and Martinez frequently sparred, with the prosecutor insulting her and occasionally losing his temper with her constant parsing of his words.
Then came the three days of jury questions, some sanctimoniously asking her about her morals, others trying to trip her up in details.
"Juries are notoriously difficult to read," former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton said. "But when you get question after question that is aggressive, it doesn't bode well (for her). It shows that they are uncertain about her credibility.
Gierloff was certain it was not in Arias' best interest to stay on the witness stand. "I think it's bad for her," he said. "People are questioning her testimony and have a lot of questions. Mr. Martinez is adding to that fire."
There is no real question of guilt or innocence in the Arias case. The issue is whether Arias is convicted of second-degree murder, crime of passion, for which she would face a sentence of 10 to 22 years in prison, or if she is convicted of first-degree murder, in which case the jury would have to choose between life and death.
"This jury is going to be asked to make two incredible decisions," Phoenix defense attorney Vikki Liles said. "I personally think it's a terrible thing to ask people to do, but it's still incredible."
And it may be influenced by the time Arias spent on the stand.
"It's not tremendously helpful to have a defendant sit that close to the jury for that long when you're going for the death penalty," Gold said. "You don't want to humanize them."
Liles, on the other hand, thought that regardless of whether Arias' long stint on the witness stand was better for her or the prosecution, it was definitely good for the jurors.
"The jury certainly has had an opportunity to get to know her more than any other jury I've heard of," she said. "People make snap judgments, but after 19 days, they've probably spent more time with her than some of her casual friends."
Consider also the combative nature of those 19 days: the jury has been watching Martinez battling, not only with Arias, but with Nurmi as well, and one imagines that the jurors are taking sides.
Last week, as Nurmi was near the end of his follow-up to the juror questions, he fought through Martinez's multiple objections until he got Arias to give him a good walk-off line.
"All I can do at this point is say what happened to my own recollection," she said.
Martinez was at that point Wednesday, hammering at Arias until he found his end note.
"So you fired the gun, you shot him in the head and you killed him, right?" he said. She answered in one word, "Yes."
Fields, the retired judge, who was also a federal prosecutor, called it a question of egos.
But attorneys are torn as to how much judges should interfere in the back and forth. Federal judges are known to restrict argument and testimony. Judge Sherry Stephens has allowed the attorneys to carry on their battles.
"Judges need to be very careful about not appearing to be partial to one side or the other," Gierloff said. "Typically judges give prosecutors more leeway when they're cross-examining defendants on the stand."
But Fields said that as a judge, he would be inclined to rein in attorneys and jury questions.
"I would call them up to the bench and say, 'I think we're done.'" he said.
Paul Rubin, who covered trials for Phoenix New Times for nearly 30 years, was more blunt.
"As long as you have a mad dog prosecutor who's allowed to run wild in the courtroom and you have a defendant who doesn't seem to understand the deeper jam she gets into with every answered question, it's a freak show."
The Arizona Republic