Featuring lascivious photographs, a comely defendant, a brutally slain victim and a hefty heaping of lies, the Jodi Arias trial has just the sauce and spice to whet the appetites of Americans dulled by a diet of budget cuts and Congressional impasses. Since it began on January 3, 2013, Arizona v Arias has kept viewers rapt in the twists and turns of an obsessive love relationship that ended with murder. The victim, Travis Alexander, was found lying dead in his shower with his neck slashed from ear to ear, 27 stab wounds and a gunshot wound to the head. His girlfriend, Jodi Arias, is standing trial for the crime.
There is little question of who killed him. Jodi Arias has admitted to committing the crime. At issue instead are the weights and measures of guilt and justification and the actual story of how this young couple, ordinary and attractive, ended up in an altercation that led to such a brutal end.
The prosecution's version, delivered by a feisty, unrelenting prosecutor, presents Jodi Arias as a crazed and vengeful ex-girlfriend who poured her spurned frustrations into tricking a man into a sexual encounter that ended in his death. She lied and then lied again, tried her best to cover up the crime and admitting only when cornered by investigators with physical evidence.
The defence's version is of a battered and abused woman, manipulated and controlled by a confused man tormented by his own sexual deviance, who finally got the guts and the gun to defend herself. In this iteration of the story, it was Jodi Arias who was in danger, being the keeper of the secret of his pedophilic urges, and the target of his violent rages.
Watching the saga unfold, along with the jury are millions of American television viewers, and there is much to see. In the age of compulsive virtual sharing, nearly every step of the Arias-Alexander relationship seems to have been documented in MySpace statuses, personal blogs or Facebook page updates. There is the blog Travis wrote about the sort of woman he would like to marry, and the memorial to Travis Jodi posted on her Facebook page after his death (she had not yet admitted to killing him). This public reality is set against the grisly private reality visible only now in the explicit pictures, the risqué text messages and the plaintive voicemails.
From these unspoken bits and pieces, the prosecution alleges that Jodi Arias enjoyed and even encouraged their sexual life. In turn, Jodi alleges she was forced into them because she loved an abusive man and was willing to please him at any cost. Each side bolstered their assertions with a smattering of witnesses. The prosecution brought in a motley of Travis's friends who insist that Jodi was indeed a psychotic, jilted ex who could not bear to let him get away. The defence brought in a slew of Travis' ex-girlfriends who added their words to the portrait of Travis being a domineering, boorish man often disrespectful to women.
"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-defence statutes] shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person who has been a victim of those past acts of domestic violence."
- Arizona legal code, 13-415
Criminal defendants rarely take the stand in murder trials but winsome Jodi Arias, who faces the death if convicted, did so in her defence, her blonde hair now brown and complexion paled by the vagaries of prison life. The task before her was to convince the jury not that she didn't do it, but that she did it as an act of self-defence. She dropped Travis's new camera, he got angry and she feared violence, so she ran and got a gun. Arizona law, like the law in most of the United States, recognises "self-defence" as justifiable based on the imminent harm that the actor perceives. In addition, the force used by the person defending him or herself must be proportional to the force they perceive may be applied against them, with deadly force only justified if there is evidence that the actor could perceive deadly force coming to them. In jury instructions related to determining whether "self-defence" applies, jurors are normally instructed that it does not matter who struck the first blow, so long as the person who did believed themselves to be in danger of being harmed.
Jodi Arias's defence team has added another element to the mix. The allegations of domestic violence that the defence alleged had occurred previously between the two (and to substantiate what Jodi Arias had presented as a bent finger as evidence), change the criteria on which the issue must be judged. Arizona's Criminal Statutes state, "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-defence statutes] shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person who has been a victim of those past acts of domestic violence."
In this way, the jury is given much greater breadth to judge the actions of the person as a victim of repeated battering whose perception of danger may have been altered by having been routinely victimized.
It is in the use of this defence known in several states as the "Battered Spouse/Partner Defence" that the accruing costs the sensationalised Arias case imposes on abuse survivors come to the fore. According to evidence introduced in court, Arias told three different stories to police before finally admitting to the murder. She did not do so, until photos on the memory chip from the camera found at Travis Alexander's house (a camera she had tried to destroy by running it through the wash cycle) revealed her at his house on the day of the murder. In addition, Arias could present little actual evidence of physical abuse. In his cross-examination, prosecutor Juan Martinez exposed the dubiousness of the bent finger claim, by introducing into evidence a picture of Arias and her sister taken after the alleged incident, in which her finger does not appear to be bent.
Steeped in lies, the Arias case represents a use of the domestic abuse defence that may well undermine the likelihood of future juries and courts from accepting the defence as a genuine basis of fear based aggression. As it happens, "battered spouse defences" already face inordinate challenges in American courts and are not even recognised in most other parts of the world. Thirty years ago in the United States, women including those who had faced decades of extreme physical, mental and verbal abuse at the hands of their abusers, had to plead "insanity" defences if they killed their abusers. One recent case in which the defence was the basis of an acquittal was that of Barbara Sheehan, who pumped a torrent of bullets into her husband of twenty-four years while he was shaving. Testimony in that case revealed that the relationship had been one of prolonged abuse including incidents in which Mr Sheehan had smashed his wife's head against a cinderblock and thrown boiling pasta sauce at her.
Acquittals however, are the exception. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence [PDF], the average prison sentence of men who kill their female partners in the United States is 2 to 6 years while women who kill their male partners do more than double the time at about 15 years. In addition, 90 percent of women serving time in jails for killing men have been battered by those men. This is true even though women are eight times more likely than men to be murdered by their intimate partners. These grim statistics, the realities of abused women, and the fear-based dynamics of intimate crimes that often rely on the word of a woman against a man, all pale against the snappy dramatics of the Arias trial. When a scheming woman pretends to be a victimised one, her lies inevitably taint the fates of those who will tell the truth in the future.
The last week of the Arias trial is likely to present more grisly evidence, flamboyant and dramatic flourishes by both sides, with the arrogant Arias who boasted on national television that "no jury would convict her", attempting yet again to play the hapless victim. The details of her lies and their mockery of domestic abuse all endanger the credibility of future female defendants who will now end up facing even more sceptical juries who doubt and question the reality of abuse and its implications on the acts of women acting in self-defence.
Rafia Zakaria is on the board of directors of Amnesty International. She is a lawyer and a Political Science PhD candidate at Indiana University.
Follow her on Twitter: @RafiaZakaria
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.