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May 6, 2013

Jurors deliberate Arias fate amid spectacle

PHOENIX —  It has become a real-life soap opera watched by people around the world and dozens of fanatics who camp out on a Phoenix sidewalk in the middle of the night to get into the show. One seat even sold for $200.

A cable network has set up a stage nearby for daily broadcasts, and the spectacle is routinely among the most heavily trending topics on Twitter. Fans have traveled from all over the U.S. to be close to the action, often seeking out autographs from the key people involved in the case, namely one of the main attractions, prosecutor Juan Martinez.

The star is none other than a small-town waitress and aspiring photographer from Northern California who killed her lover by stabbing him nearly 30 times and shooting him in the head. Jodi Arias has been on trial for first-degree murder since January, and her case has developed an enormous following with its tales of sex, violence and double-crossing.

The jury on Friday began deliberating whether the 32-year-old Arias should be convicted of first-degree murder in the June 4, 2008, death of her on-again-off-again boyfriend Travis Alexander, a motivational speaker and salesman for a legal services company. Prosecutors say Arias showed up at Alexander's house unannounced in the middle of the night, had sex with him on multiple occasions then killed him in his bedroom, slitting his throat from ear to ear and jabbing a knife in his heart before shooting him in the forehead.

Prosecutors have argued throughout the case that Arias was a stalker who killed him because he wanted to end the relationship and was about to take a trip to Mexico with another woman. Arias contends it was self-defense after Alexander lost his temper and body-slammed her to the floor when she dropped his prized new camera. She and her defense lawyers have sought to portray him as an abusive womanizer and sexual deviant.

The case has become a sensation for a number of reasons, with the sex and violence front and center.

Arias testified for 18 days about every aspect of her sex life with Alexander, many of the details X-rated in nature. The proliferation of streaming video and Twitter has made the trial accessible to people in ways unimaginable just a couple years ago. The court proceedings themselves have devolved into a sideshow at times, with a bizarre retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by a defense witness and lawyers playing in open court a raunchy phone sex chat between Arias and the victim a month before the killing. On top of that, cable networks such as HLN have thrown fuel on the fire by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the case. As a result, the network has seen record ratings.

"Everybody always has known that if you can tell a story and say it is based on a true story, or ripped from the headlines, than that's often something you can make more compelling because it's real," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "Well, this is the ultimate. This isn't based on a real story. You're showing them the real story."

TV networks realized in the months after the killing that they had ratings gold with the Arias case. Arias courted the spotlight right away, doing jailhouse interviews with "Inside Edition" and "48 Hours" in which she adamantly denied killing Alexander, instead blaming it on two masked intruders. She stuck with that story until two years after her arrest then changed her tune to self-defense.

The Turner Broadcasting-owned HLN went all-in during the trial, launching a new show called "HLN After Dark" devoted primarily to Arias. The network's main personalities, led by Nancy Grace, have covered nothing but Arias, and HLN has set up a stage near the courtroom where it seats mock juries. Lifetime has a movie in the works. And the major networks have gotten in on the action, too. ABC's "Good Morning America" scored a major scoop during the trial by obtaining Arias' diaries that were filled with all sorts of juicy details about her romance with Alexander.

Thompson and network executives say the trial has become so popular because viewers can relate to the characters, whether it's a stormy romance, an obsessive ex-girlfriend or a cheating boyfriend.

"We knew the characters involved like Jodi and Travis were interesting young people, in love theoretically, and it went dramatically bad," said Scot Safon, executive vice president and general manager of HLN.

"A crime story like this that goes to trial, it's never just about the story itself," he added. "You get to know the people involved."

For many, watching on TV wasn't good enough. They had to be there.

Dozens of people flocked to court each day, lining up in the early morning hours for a chance to score one of a handful of seats open to the public. The seats were provided on a first-come, first-served basis, and as the trial dragged on, the crowds only grew. At one point, fans swarmed Martinez for autographs and pictures. They wait for him every day outside court, but he regularly avoids the scene by taking another exit.

"I just love watching him," said Kathy Brown, of Phoenix, who had Martinez autograph her cane. "I love the passion he has."

The antics would later lead to a charge by the defense of prosecutorial misconduct by Martinez for chumming with fans outside the courthouse and running the risk of being seen by jurors. Two HLN staffers were even questioned in open court about what they had witnessed during the odd episode that seemed more befitting of a Hollywood red carpet event than a murder trial.

To some, the circus-like environment highlighted the risks of media obsession crossing the line. It is, after all, a case about a violent killing that could send one person to death row. Alexander's family members have spent day after day sobbing in the courtroom as details of the killing have been discussed at length, all while curious onlookers fight for a spot in line to see the proceedings.

"People lose sight of how very real this is," Phoenix lawyer Julio Laboy said. "It's extremely disheartening, as if people were bartering to get into a Yankees game."

Others have been outraged that taxpayers are having to foot the bill for the trial. Because Arias could not afford legal representation, she has been provided two court-appointed lawyers — a right provided to every citizen. By the end of the trial, the cost of her defense had exceeded $1.7 million.

Arias required additional attention on the part of jail officials given her newfound status as media celebrity. She created artwork with jail-issued colored pencils and sold the items on the Internet, including a drawing of Frank Sinatra that went for $1,075. Her mother told The Associated Press that the family is using the money to pay for their expenses while attending the proceedings.

Arias has become a sensation on Twitter as well. Inmates are not given Internet access, but a friend of Arias who is attending the trial said she has been tweeting on the defendant's behalf after talking to her on the phone. In the posts, she has taken jabs at Martinez and HLN and offered up inspirational quotes from people like Brigham Young and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

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