The State of Arizona v. Jodi Arias … and Juan Martinez

By: - March 27, 2020 11:23 am
Juan Martinez

Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez during the Jodi Arias trial. Photo by Associated Press | Pool photo

The case caption said, “State of Arizona v. Jodi Ann Arias,” but it might just as well have said “State of Arizona v. Juan M. Martinez.”

Not surprisingly, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld Arias’s conviction and life sentence for the brutal 2008 murder of her sometime lover, Travis Alexander.

In her appeal, Arias alleged that she had been denied a fair trial because of the circus-like atmosphere in the courtroom and excessive publicity. She also claimed that misconduct by Martinez, the deputy county attorney who led the prosecution, thoroughly tainted the procedure. And she said that Martinez had improperly dismissed potential jurors because they were female, and especially if they had experienced domestic violence.

The three-judge panel dispatched the jury-selection issues in a separate memorandum opinion, meaning it could not be cited as precedent.

Then, in the main opinion, they quickly dispelled the publicity argument, saying that it did not sway the jury.  

But what was surprising is the number of pages — 20 out of 29 — devoted to Martinez’s behavior during trial: how he bullied witnesses and Arias herself, suggested that a psychologist had romantic feelings for Arias, appealed to the juror’s passions and fears, and promoted himself by signing autographs on the courthouse steps.

“Prosecutorial misconduct undeniably permeated this case,” Judge Jennifer Campbell wrote for the majority. “Rather than a few isolated missteps, a pattern of intentional misconduct saturated the trial.”

Still, it was not enough to award Arias a new trial. The jury would still have come back with a guilty verdict, the panel concluded.

And in a case where there was “overwhelming evidence of guilt,” Campbell wrote, it was not prudent to “reverse convictions merely to punish a prosecutor’s misdeeds or to deter future misconduct.”

Instead, the panel made the rare decision to refer Martinez to the State Bar of Arizona, the semi-governmental state board that licenses and disciplines attorneys, for possible disciplinary action.

That, in effect, is a Bar complaint, and one that comes from high up the judicial food chain.

In a concurring opinion that almost read like a dissent, Judge Kenton Jones wrote, “Yet, here we are, confronted with a prosecutor whose repeated misconduct toward the superior court, other attorneys, principals, and witnesses in a criminal case was not only abhorrent to the rules of professional conduct — and clearly unnecessary to obtain a conviction — but broadcast over and over again, hour after hour each day, throughout a sixty-seven-day trial and the non-stop hours of nationwide media coverage that followed.“

Jones seemed to question why the Bar hasn’t already dealt with Martinez and his repeated Bar complaints. More on that later.

Arias and Alexander carried on an obsessive and combative sexual relationship for nearly two years. Arias had moved from Arizona to get away from it, but couldn’t stay away. And while ostensibly on a cross-country trip to Salt Lake City, via Monterey, California, and Utah National Parks, she swung down to Mesa for one more tryst with Alexander.

Five days later, Alexander’s decomposing body was found in the shower of his Mesa home.  He had been shot in the head, stabbed 27 times and his throat was slit. Arias admitted killing him, but swore it was in self-defense.

A jury did not believe her, and after a tumultuous live-streamed trial, convicted her of first-degree murder in 2013. But they could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death. Arias went back to trial in 2015, and the second jury deadlocked, as well, resulting in a mandatory natural life sentence for Arias.

I sat through both trials. I interviewed Arias and talked to her on the phone a few times. I know her defense team. I also have known and reported on Martinez for nearly 20 years. I have weathered the ongoing social-media shit storm from all of their obsessed fans and haters.

I have no doubt that Arias killed Alexander. She admitted it. I also don’t doubt she did it in a fit of rage.

Unlike the Court of Appeals panel, I never bought into the circumstantial evidence that Martinez used to prove premeditation. Martinez harped on the fact that she had extra gas cans in her car; so do a lot of Western folks who plan to drive cross country and camp at national parks. She rented a car; hers was a clunker. She dyed her hair; women often do that. 

But you don’t need days and weeks of scheming to allege premeditation. A few minutes of reflection are enough.

Just days before the trial began, Martinez changed the physical facts of the case, switching from a theory that Arias first shot Alexander, then stabbed him and slit his throat to a new theory that she first stabbed him, then slit his throat and then finished him off with a shot. Perhaps just coincidentally, that makes the crime seem colder, crueler, more heinous — aggravating factors that would allow for a death sentence.

Years ago, an Arizona Supreme Court justice told me she never understood why some prosecutors felt they had to exaggerate and embellish in slam-dunk cases.

Juan Martinez stands out in that group.

The case-law language about the court’s refusal to throw out cases to punish a prosecutor in the Arias case was cited to an Arizona Supreme Court opinion, State of Arizona v. Bryan Hulsey. (It actually first appeared in an earlier case.) Hulsey killed a Glendale police officer in 2007 and was sentenced to death. Martinez was the prosecutor.  

The misconduct allegations did not merit reversal, the court ruled. Hulsey was instead granted a new sentencing under case law from another case involving prosecutor misconduct, State of Arizona v. Shawn Lynch.

Lynch was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a man in Scottsdale in 2001. The prosecutor? You guessed it: Juan Martinez. When Lynch appealed his case to the Arizona Supreme Court, he alleged numerous instances of misconduct by Martinez. The justices upheld the sentence and the conviction despite the alleged misconduct.

But then Lynch’s case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices there noted that Martinez had told the jury that, if they didn’t sentence Lynch to death, he might get out on parole and kill again. Except there was no parole for first-degree murder in Arizona at the time of Lynch’s sentencing. If the jury had spurned death, Lynch would have been sentenced to natural life in prison with no chance of release. 

The high court threw out the sentence and Lynch died of hepatitis C before he could be retried.

But findings of prosecutor misconduct are not de facto Bar complaints. And the two things are not synonymous, even if they may overlap. Prosecutor misconduct is determined by a judge. Bar complaints are about attorney ethical misconduct, which is determined by the Bar. Prosecutor misconduct refers to actions taken during trial; ethical misconduct relates to how an attorney interacts with clients and judges and other sworn officers of the court.

For example, in a footnote, the opinion in Arias’s appeal referred to a sidebar at Judge Sherry Stephens’s bench during the trial, when Martinez said that if he were married to defense attorney Jennifer Willmott, he would “fucking kill myself.” The appellate court noted that the utterance was not heard by the jury and therefore was not an instance of prosecutor misconduct.

But it was alleged in a Bar complaint as ethical misconduct because it occurred between officers of the court.

Martinez has been the subject of numerous Bar charges since the Arias trial. Several were dismissed, earning Martinez the nickname “Teflon Juan.”  

There are a number pending, including for comparing a Jewish attorney to Hitler; for lying about his sexual affair with a blogger during the Arias trial and about how long he stayed in touch with a juror dismissed from the Arias trial who sent him photos of her naked breasts; and for revealing information about another Arias juror.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees defending Martinez against them. That may end, as the office has moved to fire Martinez – not for prosecutor or ethical misconduct, but for HR misconduct in the #MeToo era.  

Martinez was accused not only of inappropriate approaches to women in his office, but for retaliating after they reported him.

What happens now remains to be seen. If the county legal help is cut off, can Martinez continue to fight the Bar charges? Will he defend himself? Or will he be forced to enter into a disciplinary deal with the Bar?

Nor has Arias reached a dead end. She can still appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. She can petition the Maricopa County Superior Court for post-conviction relief if she thinks there is new evidence or that her attorney was ineffective. Then it can bounce around the federal courts for decades.  

Consider the notorious case of Debra Milke, who was convicted of having her four-year-old son murdered in 1989 and sentenced to death. After spending 24 years in custody — one year shy of a life sentence — her conviction and sentence were overturned in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because of prosecutorial misconduct. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that double jeopardy would attach if she were retried. She is free today.

As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

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Michael Kiefer
Michael Kiefer

Michael Kiefer has been a journalist in Arizona for 31 years, including 16 years at The Arizona Republic and eight at Phoenix New Times. Before that, he was an associate editor at Outside magazine and wrote for numerous publications, including Esquire, Playboy and The New York Times. He witnessed five Arizona executions and covered the topic from state murder trials to the U.S. Supreme Court.