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Did Expert Witness Testimony Effect Sentencing in Jodi Arias Trial?

What effect did the expert witness testimony ultimately have on the outcome of the Jodi Arias murder trial?  Although Arias was found guilty of first degree murder, in the end the jury was split on sentencing 8-4 in favor of the death penalty – in Arizona, even a 11-1 split equals a hung jury.  The jury rejected the self defense claims and agreed an aggravating factor existed making this case eligible for capital punishment.  That much we know.  But how is it that those same jurors could end up so divided on punishing Travis Alexander’s murderer?

Jodi Arias spent an unprecedented 18 days on the witness stand, and post verdict interviews with jurors confirmed the defendant didn’t make a good witness.  She contradicted herself, butted heads with prosecutor Juan Martinez, and tried her best to paint Travis in the worst light possible while claiming to want to preserve his memory and character.  She was caught in numerous lies and inconsistencies by the time Martinez got his shot at her.  But it seems at least one juror believed that Arias had in fact been the victim of some type of abuse at Alexander’s hands.  Although there was no documented reports of the abuse incidents Arias spun into her testimony, her journals and personal diaries made no mention of being kicked, body slammed or slapped, the defense brought in a maverick for the cause of domestic violence in Alyce LaViolette to testify on Arias’ behalf.  She told the jury she believed Travis did abuse Jodi, while discounting any direct evidence that Arias engaged in stalking behavior with Travis.

How did this impact the jurys ability to hand down the death penalty?  Dr. Richard Samuels was another defense expert who was clearly in the Arias camp and testified to her favor that she suffered from PTSD.  However, prosecutor Juan Martinez effectively neutralized Samuels testimony by pointing out numerous errors and omissions in Samuels scoring of critical psychological tests that supported a PTSD diagnosis – he also was effective in suggesting Samuels was “taken” by Arias, bringing her gifts in the form of books during his jailhouse interviews with her.  Dr. Samuels failed to sway the jury and was criticized for his sloppy reporting methods as he was unable to explain why he hand scored the tests multiple times until he achieved the desired results.

Alyce LaViolette initially appeared to be a good witness for the defense. Her credentials and legitimate early work in the field of domestic violence gave her credibility and she was a likeable character during her first few days on the stand while being questioned by the defense.  LaViolette became combative during her cross examination with Juan Martinez, refusing to answer questions in a yes/no manner, talking over the prosecutor and she grew increasingly more defensive of her interview tactics as her days on the stand stretched into weeks. The biggest problem I had with LaViolette is that she firmly formed an opinion on Arias being abused based only on the written and spoken words of Jodi Arias.  She didn’t interview close friends or family members of Arias or Alexander who may have provided her with a way to prove or disprove her findings or corroborate what Arias told her about the complex relationship she had with Travis.

Then we learned that LaViolette had spent more hours with Arias than was clinically necessary, and had also given her books and reading materials that could have furnished her with a blueprint to support her in court performance as a domestic abuse survivor.  LaViolette refused to entertain the thought that Arias may have played her like a fiddle, she told the jury she fully believed everything Arias told her without question.  That’s where she lost all credibility in my book.  Believing the words of a woman with everything to lose is a dangerous proposition and to this day, I don’t understand why LaViolette would jeopardize her standing in her field for Jodi Arias.  Many of the jury questions seemed to ask these same questions regarding the methods of both expert witnesses, and there was no evidence to indicate there was any physical abuse. 

I read an article recently written by Michael J. Perrotti PhD that outlined some of these problems in (link provided below).  Perrotti has served as a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist expert for more than 20 years and he wrote of many omissions of crucial standards in the Jodi Arias trial. He points to the lack of collateral interviews of third party informants such as family and friends, who could have provided valuable perspective on the person being evaluated.   He states “collateral parties can help confirm or disconfirm the evaluators impressions.  This did not appear to be done in the Arias’s trial”.   An evaluation of only the defendant can be weighted towards the defendant’s self-report.

He wrote “it is difficult to understand how Arias was considered a victim of abuse when there did not appear to be any police reports or documented incidents of domestic violence.  Additionally, there did not appear to be any consideration of her abusive behavior (for example, she was alleged to have slashed the tires on the victims car and peeked into the window of the victim’s house).”  He also pointed to the experts focus on PTSD and memory issues and not neuropsychological issues.  Perrotti also believes the purchase and filling of the gas cans were a sign of her pre-meditation.   “It is important to integrate the physical findings at the crime scene with the psychological profile of the defendant”, he wrote. “None of the experts appeared to have evaluated or considered crime scene evidence with their findings”.

Perrotti specifically points to Alyce LaViolette’s testimony that the report of Arias peeking into Alexander’s window while he was with another woman was not stalking as “difficult to understand” given the research of “The Reference Manual For Scientific Evidence”, which defines stalking as “to annoy or harass, with fear being a main component”.  What I found most important in Perrotti’s article was his take on the importance of an the evaluator being an objective expert and avoiding the appearance of bias.  Having two separate experts giving Arias books is seen as problematic, and one expert apologizing to the defendant for reading her diary/journals as another potential conflict.  “It is difficult to understand how this occurred when contraband is not allowed in correctional facilities”, he wrote.  The RMSE provides guidelines for what evaluators should do when deception is detected from a defendant.  He firmly believes there were significant omissions by the defense experts in the Arias case.  I think it’s important to note that the prosecution’s expert, Dr. Janeen DeMarte seemed to follow the guidelines in making a fair and impartial assessment of the defendant.  She spent enough time to evaluate Arias, but not enough time to form a relationship with her.  She made no apologies, and she didn’t feel the need to bring her any reading materials to pass her time in jail!  In my opinion, she was the only expert who was credible whatsoever.  Thankfully, the jury found her guilty of first degree murder – but it’s fair to wonder if the sentencing phase outcome was effected by Alyce LaViolette’s firm belief in Arias as an abuse victim.

As the August 26th status hearing approaches, I wonder if Arias’ post guilty verdict jailhouse ventures will figure into the mitigation case.  She appears to be trying to make good on her campaign speech to jury #1 by starting an online book club of sorts – more of a book review website in reality.  But I have faith in Juan Martinez, and I’m hoping he will quickly point out the same website is accepting donations for Arias’ commissary account and has links to other supporter run sites where donations are taken for her families travel expenses to and from court, and she has made an undisclosed amount of money from her artwork and those Survivor t-shirts.  Such the humanitarian.  With two new books based on Arias’ life and the trial, a Lifetime movie that already came out and reports of a new made-for-tv movie in the works, I’m afraid Jodi Arias isn’t disappearing from the spotlight any time soon.  The penalty retrial could take weeks, if not months. I’m not familiar enough with a penalty do-over to make an educated guess on how long this could run, but the sooner this case is put to rest the better.

Judge Sherry Stephens, do the right thing and get this retrial scheduled and keep it moving.  The victim may not be here, but he has rights too.  The link to the Michael Perrotti article is listed below.  While it’s nothing new, it’s an interesting read nonetheless.  Have a great weekend!

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