On March 5, 2015, a jury could not unanimously agree on whether Jodi Arias deserved the death penalty. In May 2013, after a lengthy trial, which included testimony of psychological experts and an unbelievable eighteen days of Defendant testimony, Arias was convicted of the June 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. The sentencing phase of the trial concluded on March 5 when a second jury, for a second time, could not agree as to whether Arias should suffer the death penalty for her actions. She has dodged the needles of lethal injection, but Arias will still spend a very long time in prison. On April 13, an Arizona judge will determine whether she is going to spend the rest of her life in prison or, if someday she could be eligible for parole.
After proving to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Arias committed murder, in order to have a death sentence imposed, Prosecutors next had to prove to the jury that Arias’ actions were particularly “cruel, heinous or depraved.” The Prosecutions’ only witness was the Medical Examiner who described the nature and extent of Travis Alexander’s wounds – 27 to 29 stab wounds, a slit throat and a gunshot wound to the head. After his injuries were inflicted, it took Travis two whole minutes to die, a duration which was impressively and dramatically demonstrated by the Prosecution when they paused, holding the courtroom silent, allowing the full time to tick by. There were victim impact statements made by Travis’ family, in which they talked about the life that Arias brutally took over half a decade ago and the pain that they still live with to this day. Arias made her own tearful plea and, despite earlier interviews in which she said that she would prefer the death penalty, asked that the jury spare her life. In the end, her pleas must have worked. One juror saved Jodi Arias from being strapped to a gurney and given the cocktail of drugs that would end her life as punishment for her actions.
We, as outsiders, all have our opinions on Jodi Arias. There have been news specials, public interviews by the Defendant (which were, of course, introduced as evidence at trial) and even a Lifetime Movie made about this story. The law, however, must remain blind. In Pennsylvania, as in Arizona, numerous rules govern the application of a death sentence, rules which must be followed strictly in order for a sentence of death to be imposed.
Much of how the death penalty works is dictated by federal law. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the death penalty, as imposed in certain cases, was a form of cruel and unusual punishment and was thus barred under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The death sentence was suspended nationwide for a number of years, during which time the states revised their capital punishment laws to comply with federal requirements. The Supreme Court has prohibited outright death sentences in cases where the Defendant is intellectually disabled or is under the age of eighteen. They have also found that the punishment is off the table when the Defendant has been convicted of anything less than murder, including rape and child rape without the victim’s death.
The only crime for which a Defendant can be sentenced to death in Pennsylvania is First Degree Murder. Even before a Defendant is found guilty, Prosecutors must first file a “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances”, putting the Defendant on notice that they are seeking a death sentence. The hope is that the notice will give the Defendant plenty of time to prepare a response. In the sentencing phase of a trial, the Commonwealth must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there are aggravating circumstances surrounding the crime, the Defendant’s criminal history, and the identity of the murder victim, which warrant the death penalty. Aggravating circumstances include the murder of a police or law enforcement officer, committing murder for hire, murdering a hostage who was being held for ransom, torturing a victim, murdering a child under the age of twelve, murdering a pregnant woman and killing a Prosecution witness to prevent their testimony, just to name a few. Unless the prosecutors prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that these circumstances existed, the jury cannot impose a death sentence.
Even if there are aggravating circumstances, a Defendant may still not be sentenced to death. Pennsylvania law also provides a list of “mitigating circumstances”, which defense attorneys argue outweigh the prosecution’s aggravating circumstances. It’s a balancing test – if the mitigating outweighs the aggravating, a jury cannot impose the death penalty. Mitigating circumstances include extreme emotional or mental distress of the Defendant during the commission of the crime, their age, impaired capacity and if the Defendant had a minimal role in committing the crime. The law also, broadly, allows any other evidence regarding the Defendant’s character, criminal record and circumstances to negate the prosecutions’ reasons for seeking the death sentence.
The death penalty has been in the news a great deal in Pennsylvania as of late. Check back for another post on the current state of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. If you have questions about a family law issue, call the Pittsburgh Divorce attorneys at McMorrow Law, LLC at 724-940-0100.