(PHOENIX) — The death penalty phase of the Jodi Arias trial was cut short Monday after Arias’ defense attorneys erupted in confrontational arguments with the judge and prosecutor and said they could not continue defending her.
The jury was expecting to hear character testimony from Arias’ friends Monday as part the defense’s bid to present mitigating factors to the jury and convince it to sentence her with leniency. But before that could happen, lead defense attorney Kirk Nurmi asked for a mistrial and for permission to withdraw from the case, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
Arias was convicted on May 8 of murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. She now faces the death penalty.
On Monday, Nurmi told the court that the defense could not go on because one of their mitigating witnesses, Arias’ childhood friend Patricia Womack, had been intimidated into not testifying by prosecutor Juan Martinez.
“Miss Womack feels her life is being threatened to an extent she cannot come forward and testify. This is unacceptable,” Nurmi said.
“This cannot be a modern-day version of stoning or witch trials,” he added, becoming more animated. “When you have a prosecutor that this court allows to personally attack witnesses and counsel, it breeds this sort of environment where intimidating can take place. And this has been happening throughout trial.”
Nurmi has previously asked for two mistrials based on alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Both times, Judge Sherry Stephens denied his motions.
Martinez said that he had merely interviewed Womack about her testimony last week, on May 15, and asked her pointed questions about her drug use and unreported income that could subject her to criminal prosecution. Womack decided to invoke her Fifth Amendment right in response to his questions, Martinez said.
Womack did not appear in court Monday.
Stephens denied the defense’s request for a mistrial, causing Nurmi immediately to move to withdraw from the case. It is the third time he and co-counsel Jennifer Willmott have asked to withdraw.
“Ms. Willmott and I move to withdraw again,” Nurmi said Monday. “We cannot present a full picture [of Arias’ life] as incumbent upon us. We cannot fulfill our duties.”
When Stephens also denied that request and asked Nurmi to call his first witness for the day, Nurmi said if the court would not rule in the defense’s favor on the mistrial or withdrawal motions, there would be no witnesses, leaving only Arias’ own statement to the jury before closing arguments.
Nurmi originally told jurors they would hear about Arias’ life, her clean criminal record, her quest to better herself and her artwork before they would be asked to rule on her sentence. Without any witnesses or testimony, however, the case wound quickly to its close Monday.
Stephens adjourned court noting that Arias would give her allocution statement on Tuesday, at 12:30 p.m. ET.
The defense and prosecution both are expected to rest their cases at that time, before the jury goes into deliberations to decide whether to sentence Arias to death or life in prison.
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