By Michael Kiefer The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- Jodi Arias killed her lover in a fashion that was not only gruesome but custom-made for the social-media age.
The digital record of the relationship between Arias and her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, is stunning. The testimony and trial exhibits verge on pornography. All of this has lured a global audience to the proceedings at the Maricopa County Superior Courthouse in downtown Phoenix.
Among the evidence presented since the trial began Jan. 2: grisly photos of the crime scene and of Alexander's autopsy; photos of the victim and the defendant, naked, in the hours and minutes before his death; thousands of e-mails and text messages between the two; and numerous taped interviews that Arias made after the crime, to police and to TV reporters.
All of the salacious material has been streamed live from Courtroom 5C, reprocessed through the Twittersphere and posted on websites.
There are pro- and anti-Jodi Arias Web pages, her photos and drawings are on sale on eBay, and blogs written by Arias and Alexander before his death can still be found on the Internet.
"This is murder trial as entertainment," said Josh Mankiewicz, a correspondent for NBC's "Dateline" program. "This is not a trial like O.J. (Simpson's) that sheds new light on society. This is not about race or money. It's a perfect tabloid storm. It is occurring in the absence of any other tabloid storm."
At the center of it is a young, attractive, soft-spoken woman who could face the death penalty. Her face, among other body parts, is flashed daily on TV and computer screens, her photo published daily in magazines and newspapers around the world.
By last week, trial watchers were lining up in the halls of Maricopa County Superior Court, trying to get a glimpse of Arias. Most are appalled, some are allured.
David Kennedy of Chandler, Ariz., and his mother waited in line before the day's proceedings.
"Honestly, she's cute, and I've got a bit of a groupie crush, if I can say that," Kennedy said.
There's nothing cute about the case.
Arias, 32, is charged with the 2008 murder of Travis Alexander, 30, who was found dead in the shower of his Mesa home in June 2008 with a slashed throat, 27 stab wounds and a bullet in his head.
Arias and Alexander were in a relationship at one time, but they split up.
According to court documents, Alexander would tell his friends that she was a stalker and a "skank." He also led friends and family to believe that he was a virgin, abiding by Mormon laws of chastity for single people.
But he would still invite Arias to his house for sex. They took vacations together. And on the night before he died, Alexander convinced Arias to make a long detour on her drive from California to Salt Lake City to visit him in Mesa.
She spent more than 12 hours there, and judging from the photographs found in Alexander's camera, they had sex, until some disagreement occurred and Alexander ended up dead.
Arias is claiming self-defense; prosecutors are calling it premeditated murder.
Capital-murder trials are not rare in Arizona. Besides Arias', there is another in progress in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Nor is it rare for television tabloid and newsmagazine shows to come to Phoenix to film the high-profile cases.
But what makes Arias' case so intriguing to court watchers is the volume of steamy detail available: sex, lies and videotape, plus a number of media possibilities that had not been invented when the cliche was coined.
"There is an embarrassment of riches in this case," said Ryan Owens, an ABC correspondent for that network's "Good Morning America" and "20/20" shows.
Owens has covered a number of high-profile court cases, including the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial.
"What makes this case different is that (the viewers) get to sit in judgment," Owens said. "She's on tape, and she's on video. The victim still has blog posts and pictures everywhere."
Local broadcast media has made hay of trial histrionics.
On Wednesday, for example, prosecutor Juan Martinez confronted one of Alexander's former girlfriends by displaying an autopsy photo of Alexander, his lips shrunken away from his teeth in a macabre grin after five days of decomposition, his eyes bulging open, his neck gash unfathomably wide.
The witness screamed and erupted in tears, a moment almost everyone included in the day's media coverage.
Last week's testimony ended with a cliffhanger Thursday, after a defense witness briefly flashed a photo of a penis that Alexander allegedly "sexted" to Arias in the early days of their relationship. Martinez objected.
Media and spectators had already been ushered out of the courtroom for more than two hours as attorneys listened to a recording of phone sex between the lovers made in the days before the slaying.
Trial watchers are now hoping that the recording will air this week and that Arias will be put on the witness stand -- defense attorneys are being coy as to when and whether either will happen.
"Journalism, like nature, abhors a vacuum," Mankiewicz said.
Paradoxes of defendant
Then there is the paradoxical nature of the killer. Arias seems timid. She won a talent show in the jail last year, singing Christmas carols. Her friends have testified that she is gentle and soft-spoken. But police interrogation video shows that she lies easily.
"One of the things that draws people to this is how incredibly articulate and well-spoken Jodi is," Mankiewicz said.
That stands in strong contrast to the horrific scene of the killing.
"How do you wrap your mind around someone who looks like that and is capable of doing something like that?" Owens said.
In the recent history of "murder trial as entertainment," the Casey Anthony case stands out.
In that case, a young and attractive Florida mother loses track of her daughter and does not report it. She is charged with murder. The child's body is eventually found, but beyond everyone's belief, Anthony is acquitted.
The trial was a rallying point for Nancy Grace, the TV justice commentator from HLNtv who coined the phrase "Tot Mom" while referring to Anthony. The case became a national obsession.
The trial's viewers are obsessive, as borne out by Twitter traffic. They tweet and retweet posts about the case, sometimes offering their own theories, and sometimes debating trial testimony.
The Twitter audience is insatiable.
"If you are looking at text, it doesn't feel as much that you're stealing time away from work," said Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer and professor of journalism at Columbia University.
Journalists are fanning the flames by live-tweeting from the courtroom to gather "eyeballs," Sreenivasan said.
Some viewers are watching the live feed and monitoring Twitter at the same time, like baseball fans who bring transistor radios to the ballgame to listen to the play-by-play commentary -- except that the Twitter audience gets to interact with the commentators.
"I like watching the tweets and the trial because a lot of times the reporters are in the courtroom and you can ask them a question and they actually answer," said Tracy Fox, a trial aficionado who has been following the Arias case from Ontario.
For some, it can be difficult to look away. Trial trackers refer to the defendant and the victim as if they were on a first-name basis.
"I'm following because I think Travis had problems...which caused him to have a dark side and he took it out on Jodi," said Nancy Dee, who is watching the case from Patterson, Calif. "As an abuse survivor, I understand how abused women cover for their abuser. Of course, none of this is an excuse for killing him."
Another person following the trial on Twitter said, "I think this case first captured my attention for the same reason so many of us have become so enraptured. It's this sweet, youthful, soft-spoken beautiful girl who (is accused of) ... a horrifying act of violence."
Not everyone is so gentle with their opinion. A woman in Michigan tweeted: "Let me know when they escort her ... to the gas chamber. Thanks!"