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Arizona v. Jodi Arias–Is It Self-Defense?

A gruesome homicide case is playing out in the arid climate of Arizona, that has garnered the interest of TruTV’s In Session, Nancy Grace and other legal commentators. Jodi Arias is a seemingly harmless looking 32 year old photographer charged in the vicious killing of her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander. When they met in 2006 Arias was pursuing careers in sales and as an amateur photographer. Alexander was a self-described motivational speaker. The relationship has been described as romantic but ultimately contentious, as the prosecution contends that Arias was a jealous stalker.

Alexander was shot, then stabbed 27 times and left with his throat slashed from ear to ear in a bloody scene reminiscent of the most brutal of Hollywood horror films. Arias first told investigators that she was out of state at the time; but, ultimately admitted to the killing, claiming she was the victim of repeated acts of domestic violence, claiming she acted in self-defense.

Contrasting accounts of both Alexander and Arias have dominated the trial. Descriptions of her vary from a virginal woman saving herself for marriage, to someone who would engage in the kinkiest of sexual activities, without limitation. Similarly the prosecution and the defense have endeavored to paint Alexander with dramatically contrasting strokes.

So how does a defense lawyer deal with the graphic photos and the extent of violence apparent in even the mildest description of the encounter? Can one effectively claim self-defense if the mechanism of death involves so many injuries? From the prosecution vantage the repeated, violent acts evidence a fatal rage and an intent to kill. The defense has the toughest sell.

What the jury will have to consider is whether her repetitive and violent acts were a reasonable response to what she believed was imminently happening to her. Most states have codified the law of justification as a defense. While the specific language may vary from state to state, the concepts are similar. There are varying degrees of force that the law finds justifiable depending on the extent of the imminent harm the actor perceives. Physical force may be used in response to the threat or use of physical force. By contrast, deadly force may only be employed as a reasonable response to potentially deadly force.

Simply stated you may justifiably kill an aggressor but only if the degree of force you employ is equal to the degree of force reasonably believed is about to be inflicted. The defender does not have to parry the first knife thrust or dodge the first bullet before deadly force is justified. Rather, jurors are instructed that they must determine whether a reasonable person faced with what the defendant was faced with would reasonably conclude that deadly force was about to be inflicted.

Under Arizona law, when the issue of domestic violence is introduced by a defendant the evidence now must be viewed through a different prism: “If there have been past acts of domestic violence . . . against the defendant by the victim, the state of mind of a reasonable person under [self-defense statutes] shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person who has been a victim of those past acts of domestic violence.” Thus the defendant is given a broader base upon which a jury is to judge the reasonableness of her actions. It is not only what she perceives is about to happen; but, it is a perception forged by repeated domestic violence. In some states it is referred to as the battered spouse [partner] defense.

The repetitive acts here can be viewed as almost an automaton’s response. Victims who have finally reached a breaking point at times act out in an almost automatic fashion. The theory is that the extensive scope of past violence triggers the ferocity of the victim’s response. For Jodi Arias this is her only hope to avoid a verdict of death.

Rich Meehan