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Convicted U.S. killer Arias would join tiny death row group

By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Jodi Arias, convicted of brutally murdering her ex-boyfriend, is expected on Tuesday to address a jury in Arizona tasked with deciding whether she should join the small group of women sitting on death row in the United States.

Arias, 32, was found guilty earlier this month of the murder of Travis Alexander, whose body was found slumped in the shower of his Phoenix-area home in 2008. He had been stabbed 27 times, shot in the face and had his throat slashed.

The same jury that convicted Arias and will ultimately decide her fate has ruled that the one-time waitress is eligible for the death penalty, finding that she acted with extreme cruelty.

A spokeswoman for Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix said Arias was expected to address the jury on Tuesday. A judge on Monday denied a request for a mistrial in the penalty phase of the trial by Arias' lawyers who argued that a key defense witness had declined to testify due to threats.

While women account for about one in eight of the arrests for murder in the United States, less than 2 percent of death row inmates are women, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

"Juries are a little more reluctant to mete out the death penalty to a woman than a man," said Andy Silverman, a law professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"We don't look at women as being as violent ... We don't think of death row as a place for them," he added.

Only one woman has ever been executed in Arizona, one-time Alaska cabaret singer Eva Dugan. Convicted of killing a wealthy Tucson chicken farmer, she was hanged and accidentally decapitated in 1930.

Another woman sentenced to death in Arizona, Debra Milke, had her conviction overturned in March after an appeals court ruled that prosecutors failed to disclose the history of misconduct of the detective who secured her alleged confession.

There are two women and 122 men currently on death row in the state. Of the more than 1,300 murderers executed nationwide since 1976, only 12, or fewer than one percent, were women.

In the Arias case, prosecutor Juan Martinez has argued that Arias killed Alexander "three times over" - stabbing him in the heart, cutting his throat "from ear-to-ear" and shooting him.

Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi argued that Alexander subjected Arias to physical and emotional abuse, which left her with post-traumatic stress.

CABLE NEWS SENSATION

With evidence including a sex tape and photographs of the blood-spattered crime scene, Arias' trial became a sensation on cable TV news with its story of an attractive, intelligent and soft-spoken young woman charged with an unthinkable crime.

If Arias gets a death sentence, her case could take decades to pass through the appeals process.

In January a Gallup poll found that support for the death penalty in the United States was at 63 percent, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

"I am expecting that it will be at least 20 years before her case is final," said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents death row prisoners' appeals.

"There may be a better understanding of the post-traumatic stress. Politically there may be a change in the governor's office, or in the legislature, or the clemency board," he added.

Arizona, which is among 32 U.S. states that have the death penalty, has executed 11 people since 2010, most recently in December when Richard Stokley was put to death for killing two girls in 1991.

After that execution, state Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican, said he would continue to fight to cut what he called "unconscionable delays between verdict and the chance for victims' families to see justice done."

Some 18 states have abolished the death penalty, while other states including California and Oregon continue to have capital punishment on the books but have not carried out executions in recent years.

Directly after her conviction, Arias told a local Fox television news affiliate she preferred a death sentence to life in prison: "I believe death is the ultimate freedom, so I'd rather just have my freedom as soon as I can get it," she said.

While the judge instructed jurors not to follow media coverage of the case, the interview, if it was seen by jurors, could make it easier for them to apply the death penalty, legal experts said.

"It's a very difficult thing for juries, even if they are for the death penalty, to impose it on an individual, a young person, a person who culturally they relate to," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"You lift some onus from them by saying ‘Give it to me,'" he added.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)

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