The Trial of Jodi Arias

Arizona v. Arias: Members of the Defense Team Have Their Work Cut Out for Them 

By Ken K. Gourdin

Since seemingly everyone else who has a “blawg”—a blog dealing with legal issues—has posted on the case of the State of Arizona vs. Jodi Ann Arias, I suppose I should do my duty in that regard, as well.  Ms. Arias stands accused of killing her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander.

I did not witness all of Prosecutor Juan Martinez’s cross-examination of Jodi Arias.  I’m sure he asked one, more than, most, or all of the following questions.  The defense attempted to explain away all of these failures on the part of Ms. Arias.  No one expected her to do all of these things, but, although many of these things expose an abuse victim to considerable potential risk at the hands of his or her abuser, not all of them do.  Yet Ms. Arias did not one of them.  Not one.  At the risk of being redundant (I’m sure Mr. Martinez [or the jury] asked Jodi most, if not all, of these questions, but great minds think alike!) here are a few of the questions I would have asked her if I were Mr. Martinez.

  • Did you ever call the police to report any of Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?
  • If you did call the police, did they file any reports about Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?
  • If Travis abused you but you did not call the police, why not?
  • Did you ever seek any domestic violence counseling to deal with Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?
  • Did you ever seek any alternate living arrangements as a result of Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?
  • Did you ever spend one night, or more, living apart from Travis as a result of Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?
  • Did you ever confide in any of your friends about Travis’s abusive behavior toward you?

She claims to have shot him after he tackled and attacked her after she dropped his camera while taking pictures of him in the shower (Oooh, kinky! ;-D).  Although she reportedly caused considerable damage to a vehicle of Travis’s due to her inability to drive a “stick,” he reportedly was less upset on that occasion than he became about the camera just before he was killed: if Jodi’s version of events is to be believed, Travis was someone who simply would shrug off thousands of dollars in damage to a high-end vehicle, but who would fly off the handle and almost kill someone over a digital camera worth a few hundred dollars (or a couple thousand, at most)?

Although she said he originally told her the gun was not loaded, she claimed she still hoped to scare him with the gun.  She said she does not know how the gun went off after she pointed it at him.  According to the defense’s timeline, he attacked her, she got away as he pursued her, she got the gun from a closet down the hall from the bathroom, shot him, stabbed him 27 times, and slit his throat from ear to ear, all within a span of just over a minute.

While the first part of the above scenario (up to and including the shooting) may be plausible as self-defense (setting aside, for the moment, that as far as I know, the only evidence we have that Travis abused Jodi is Jodi’s testimony, and Jodi’s reputation for veracity is—how to I say this delicately?—suspect) I don’t know how slitting someone’s throat and stabbing him that many times can possibly be evidence of anything other than extreme rage.  Although, admittedly, it’s impossible for anyone to put herself (and, especially, himself) in Jodi’s shoes, I might stab someone once, twice, and maybe even a few times in self-defense, and maybe even a few more times after I realized that my first attempts hadn’t neutralized the threat, but—twenty-nine times?

And then there’s the “expert,” who testified that Jodi’s memory lapses are due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  My reputation as a sm@rt-@$$ notwithstanding, normally, I’m willing to defer to experts who testify regarding things which are outside my experience and/or expertise but which are within their areas of experience and expertise.  However, arguably, the only person who has hurt Jodi’s case more than Jodi herself is psychologist Dr. Richard Samuels.  Dr. Samuels has charged $250 per hour to evaluate Jodi and to lend his expertise to her case.  ($250 an hour is more than many lawyers I know charge, yet people say lawyers charge unreasonable fees?)  Of course, I guess whether such a steep rate is worth it depends on what you’re getting.

What did the defense get for its money where Dr. Samuels is concerned?  Your mileage may vary, but the defense didn’t get nearly enough, in my view.  Yes, Maricopa County Prosecutor Juan Martinez is (or at least he comes across as) arrogant.  (From what I’ve seen, he has a right to be arrogant: it’s not arrogance if you really are that good, and from what little I’ve seen, he really is that good.)  No, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Yes, you’d better have your you-know-what together if he’s about to cross-examine you.  To be fair, perhaps Mr. Martinez could even put fear into God Himself if he were about to cross-examine Him, but the good doctor simply didn’t have his you-know-what together.  (That’s not entirely Dr. Samuels’ fault; a good share of the blame lies with the defense: one of the first rules of good trial work is that you don’t call an unprepared witness.  Yes, it’s unethical to coach witnesses, but there are endless ways in which you can prepare a witness adequately short of coaching him).

No one should begrudge the doctor for needing to refresh his memory, for consulting his notes, and for consulting other written materials in the course of testifying.  Even the average human mind is a very complex thing, after all—and Jodi Arias’s mind seems even more complex than average, in many barely-fathomable ways.  But there are ways an expert can inspire confidence, and ways in which he can destroy it: I don’t doubt the good doctor’s experience, expertise, and good intentions, but, in my view, Dr. Samuels has done the latter.  He has not brought many materials to which he wished to refer (“I must’ve left that at home”) and he has stumbled over, fumbled with, and bumbled with many of the materials to which he has referred.  He hasn’t said, “Let’s see.  I know what I want is in here somewhere,” but everyone in that courtroom knows he has thought it—many times.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (aka the DSM-IV), in order to diagnose recognized mental maladies from which a patient might suffer.  Picture it as a menu at a buffet: a diner (a psychologist, in this case) might choose an appetizer from “Column A,” a main dish from “Column B,” two side dishes from “Column C,” and dessert from “Column D.”  While I’m not familiar with what the axes represent, the axes are like the columns on that menu, and a specific mental malady can be confidently diagnosed if there are a certain number of symptoms present in each column (or axis).  If a person has the requisite number of symptoms on each axis, then he or she likely has that disorder.

There are a couple of problems, though, with the way Dr. Samuels used the DSM-IV.  First, he diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder based on a test he administered in which she lied, having told one of several versions of events she eventually produced, to him.  For example, the DSM-IV, says, in essence, if someone is assaulted by a stranger, s/he is statistically likely to suffer from the following symptoms.  If a certain number of symptoms on each axis (each column of the “menu”) are present, then s/he likely suffers from malady [x].  Jodi initially reported that Travis’s death (along with injuries to her, apparently, although I’m unsure what injuries she reported) resulted from a break-in and assault by several masked (ninja-like) intruders.  That’s the version of events upon which Dr. Samuels’ diagnosis is based.  However, if someone is assaulted by someone s/he knows (which is what Jodi reported in a subsequent version of events) s/he is statistically likely, according to the DSM, to suffer from a different set of symptoms.

But Dr. Samuels never retested Jodi to determine whether the symptoms she reported were consistent, not with assault by a stranger, but rather with assault by someone she knows.  On redirect examination by Jodi’s defense lawyers (and in response to questions from the jury—in Arizona, jurors are allowed to submit written questions, which the judge then asks), Dr. Samuels attempted to explain away this inconsistency by saying, essentially, that stress is stress, period.  But if that were so, psychologists wouldn’t specialize: why bother?  Kindergarten bullying, teenage schoolgirl crush angst, physical assault, sexual assault, battlefield psychological stress and trauma, police psychological stress and trauma, it’s all the same!  If you’ve got a five-year-old suffering the effects of bullying, a young teenage daughter trying to get over her first crush, if you’ve been physically or sexually assaulted, if you’re a soldier home from Iraq or Afghanistan, or if you’re a cop trying to deal with the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, come see me! I can treat ‘em all!  Yes, the debilitating effects of untreated, unresolved stress are bad, but stress is stress!

And the second problem is that even if Dr. Samuels had accurately diagnosed Jodi based on some version of events that approaches what really happened (that is to say, even if Jodi hadn’t lied to him, or even if he had retested her once he found out she had lied to him), he can’t do math—or at least, he didn’t do it correctly in this case.  Returning to our axes-as-menu-columns example, in order effectively to use the DSM-IV, a diagnosing professional must add up all the symptoms reported from each column.  If a person scores a certain number or above, s/he is likely to suffer from the ailment which that particular collection of symptoms represents.  If s/he scores below that number, however, s/he is unlikely to suffer from that ailment.  Dr. Samuels diagnosed Jodi with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder even though her score, according to him, was below the threshold for that diagnosis.

I wish the defense team luck.  It’s going to need it.

About Ken Gourdin

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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