Mormon Murder Provides Unique Cross-Examination Opportunity
Not since Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's fascinating account of the 1984 murders of a Mormon housewife and her 15-month daughter in Utah at the hands of her brothers-in-law, has the Mormon faith been enmeshed with a lurid murder like the trial grinding-onward in Phoenix, Arizona.
Yes, that would be the capital murder trial of the Casey-Anthonyesque "former model", Jodi Arias; accused of shooting, then slicing the throat of her Mormon boyfriend, Travis Alexander. As a criminal defense lawyer traveling to circuit and district courts across Michigan, I've had plenty of time to listen-in on this sensational trial over the past two-months.
While quite rare to have any defendant take the witness stand in her own defense, it is exceedingly rare for a defendant accused of murder to take the witness stand in a jury trial. Rarer still is to have the ongoing cross-examination of that defendant available in real-time for more than two weeks.
Cross-examination is the art of controlling a witness in order to convey a story, or a message, to a captive audience of 12 jurors; each of whom have somewhere else to be. It is a skill that few lawyers can pull-off very well. Like golf, you cannot just pick it up on the occasional weekend. While there are boatloads of lawyers out there, only a handful have viable cross-examination skills.
The Jodi Arias trial is so lurid, with such high shock-value, it is a cross-examiner's dream. A county prosecutor good enough to be assigned to a high-profile case is going to be a proficient cross-examiner. Just listening to Juan Martinez cross-examining Ms. Arias, as a criminal defense lawyer, is like being in a trial clinic.
But 18-days on the witness stand? Most judges have local court rules allowing them to control the decorum and procedure in their courtrooms, especially during a jury trial. This power includes limiting time on the witness stand. Most court watchers agree that this trial has turned into spectacle and has sailed over-the-top.
On the other hand, once you allow a genie like this out of the bottle, how then can you limit its scope when it takes on a life of its own. If the Arias defense team tosses her a hundred softballs on a myriad of subjects in her direct examination [i.e. dates, times, family history, abuse history, sexual habits; each in excruciating detail], then what is a prosecutor to do but dutifully explore each and every door that has been thrown open.
Add to this the national media attention to the case, and viola; the politician within the judge in charge of such a circus is not going to prematurely turn the nation's eyes away, especially when that judge is center stage for the ever-ready lens of the voracious national media.
Nor can we forget to account for the potential value to the defendant, win or lose, of grabbing America by the shorties for as long as she can hold-on, in order to maximize her capital in the notoriety bank; the added-value could come in handy further down her tough road ahead. From a long-term strategy perspective, this makes sense if you are Ms. Arias; and from what I've heard, she's got her head in the game.
We here at the Law Blogger defend the accused in jury trials all the time; admittedly, not high-profile murder cases. We know some good judges here in Oakland County that could fit five or six murder trials into the yawning span of the Arias trial. In the end, this spectacle amounts to a huge waste of legal talent and judicial resources.