Commentary: Arias Case Should End the Death Penalty

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death-penaltyI admit that when nationally publicized trials come on, I turn them off.  It’s a bad habit of mine.  I made the mistake with the OJ Simpson trial, and I have made the mistake several other times.  I have come to regret it yet again.  Another time I will explain my predilection for doing this, but for now, let me just point out my eyes were opened when I saw that the jury could not reach a verdict on the penalty phase.

To me this is a misnomer.  If you have a penalty phase and the jury cannot agree on life or death, then the default should be life, and the case should be over.  These were the jurors that convicted Ms. Arias, these are the ones who know the case the best, and if they can’t decide, then that’s reasonable doubt, isn’t it?

But that is not the way the system works, and so, in addition to a death-qualified jury, you have to have a unanimous verdict for life in order to end the trial.

However, this case does not end there.  I do not know anything about Jury Foreman William Zervakos, who is reported to be a 69-year-old man in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, but in an interview with the Associated Press, he brilliantly articulated the dilemma of the death decision for 12 average people who are not lawyers.

The simple question for people who are not death penalty opponents is: “How heinous of a killing deserves a similar fate?”

“The system we think is flawed in that sense because this was not a case of a Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson,” Mr. Zervakos told The Associated Press.

“It was a brutal no-win situation. … I think that’s kind of unfair,” the 69-year-old added. “We’re not lawyers. We can’t interpret the law. We’re mere mortals. And I will tell you I’ve never felt more mere as a mortal than I felt for the last five months.”

He would tell the AP that “the most difficult time of the entire trial was hearing directly from victim Travis Alexander’s family as his brother and sister tearfully explained how his killing has shattered their lives.”

“There was no sound in that jury room for a long time after that because you hurt so bad for these people,” he said. “But that wasn’t evidence. That’s what made it so hard. … This wasn’t about them. This was a decision whether we’re going to tell somebody they were going to be put to death or spend the rest of their life in prison.”

The AP reports: “Zervakos described a deliberations room full of tears and spinning moral compasses as each juror struggled to come to grips with their own beliefs about what factors – including Arias’ young age at the time of the killing and her lack of criminal history – should cause them to show mercy and spare her life.”

“You’ve got Travis Alexander’s family devastated, that he was killed, that he was brutally killed. You’ve got Jodi Arias’ family sitting in there, both families sitting and seeing these humiliating images and listening to unbelievably lurid private details of their lives, and you’ve got a woman whose life is over, too,” Mr. Zervakos said. “I mean, who’s winning in this situation? And we were stuck in the middle.”

While Mr. Zervakos did not get into his thoughts on whether she should have been sentenced to death, he told the AP he was torn between two personas, the killer and the average young woman struggling for life.

“You heard (prosecutor Juan) Martinez say she was only 27. … She’s old enough that she should have known better,” Mr. Zervakos said. “I didn’t look at it that way. I’m looking at 27 years of an absolutely normal everyday young woman that was living a life that was perfectly normal. Then something changed the trajectory of her life after meeting Travis Alexander, and it spiraled downhill from there.”

The AP reports that if a second jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge would have to sentence Ms. Arias to life – the judge cannot sentence Ms. Arias to death.

There have been a lot of questions arising from the death penalty in recent years, but this interview gives us a glimpse of what we are asking ordinary people to do.  Now maybe in a case like Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson, that is an easier call.  We saw in our own death penalty case, involving the shooting of an officer, that one juror clearly was not on board, but at some point we have to ask if we are asking our jurors to do the right thing.

What is the psychological impact on death penalty jurors?

Two weeks ago, the New York Times wrote, “Jurors on many previous capital cases say that they were unprepared for the emotional impact of the sentencing phase. Reaching a decision to impose the death penalty, they say, is painfully difficult, with haunting effects that linger long after the trial ends.”

Maybe it is time that we start looking more into the effect of the death penalty and that decision on jurors.  Mr. Zervakos, I think, articulated the dilemma fully in ways that perhaps those on both sides of the issue cannot.

The question is really posed to those who favor the death penalty sometimes, but not at other times.  After all, for me the answer is simple: by taking a life, we are not demonstrating that killing is wrong, we are demonstrating that some killing is wrong and other killings may be more or less okay.

We set arbitrary lines and then expect citizens to understand the nuances.

In the end, society can achieve most of what it wishes to accomplish through the use of life sentences.  In so doing, we would eliminate these sorts of agonizing decisions by everyday individuals.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 thoughts on “Commentary: Arias Case Should End the Death Penalty”

  1. medwoman

    It seems very ironic to me to hear a juror commenting that it is “unfair” that they should have to make a life and death judgement on an accused murderer. Does not every juror who states that they do not oppose the death penalty realize that they, as an individual, will have to make the decision to end the life of another individual. That they will be asked to make exactly the same choice that the accused allegedly made, namely to end the life of another human being.

    Yes, this can be dressed up any way you like. That the death penalty is legal. That the accused has forfeited their right to life. That there is “justice” in taking away yet another life because one was taken. That a murderer deserves to die. In the end, the outcome is exactly the same. Each of 12 individuals is asked to determine exactly what the accused determined, that another human life is theirs to take. If it is wrong for one individual to decide this, why is it right for each of 12 individuals to make exactly the same decision. Do we really believe as humans, that we are god like enough to possess the impartiality, wisdom and compassion to make the decision to take another’s life ?

  2. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t view this as ironic, I view it as a teachable moment where the recognition has been finally reached that life and death choices can be arbitrary. For those who support the possibility of a death penalty – I do not – I think thisi s the problem with the death penalty that needs to be grappled with.

  3. JimmysDaughter

    “After all, for me the answer is simple: by taking a life, we are not demonstrating that killing is wrong, we are demonstrating that some killing is wrong and other killings may be more or less okay.”

    I agree. Violence begets more violence.
    The death penalty is premeditated murder.

  4. jimt

    Re: “by taking a life, we are not demonstrating that killing is wrong, we are demonstrating that some killing is wrong and other killings may be more or less okay.”

    How about someone holding your child with a knife near his throat; you are physically smaller than the thug and he ignores your plea to release your child; but instead starts to cut your child with the knife–is it then OK to shoot him, or is self-defense or defense of others not allowed; and exactly morally equivalent to the acts of a serial-killer?

    The point of this extreme scenario I describe is that obviously not all killings are morally equivalent; this is an absurd simplistic view that pretends the world is black and white; and does not deal with the actual grey situations that most often arise in the world.
    The death-penalty is a legitimate matter for debate; it lies in the grey zone in which arguments against it and for it may each have some validity–seems to me if often takes the wisdom of Solomon to decide when it should not or should be applied.

  5. JimmysDaughter

    jimt’s comment- I don’t see where the Arias jury is being held by knife point by Ms. Arias.
    If my own children were threatened, I would fight to my death to protect them.

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