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Meeting Jodi Arias: First impressions never lie, or do they?

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Jodi Arias after she is found guilty of murder, Wednesday, May, 2013, in the Maricopa County Courthouse in Phoenix, Ariz.
CBS
(CBS) I first met Jodi Arias nearly five years ago when she was cast into the spotlight after being charged with the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander. 

PICTURES: Jodi Arias murder trial

She spoke with me on camera about the day Travis was killed, an interview which for the first time in the history of "48 Hours" was used as evidence in a death penalty trial.

Arias once again found herself in the spotlight when her trial began in early January. Since then, she has defended her actions and her life while under the watchful and scrutinizing eye of the public. With every move she makes comes some form of commentary. The cable news shows and internet blogs begin buzzing and every observer seems to have an opinion about her appearance and performance in the courtroom. If Jodi Arias cries, she's labeled a calculating actress. If she doesn't, she's callous. Perhaps the critics are right, and maybe she is putting on a show. Nobody knows for certain. But what is true of anyone sitting in her position is that the only people she had to impress the past four months were the twelve men and women who ultimately found her guilty of murder.

TIMELINE: Jodi Arias murder case

Now, as her case moves into the penalty phase, Jodi Arias could be sentenced to death -- a harsh reality that undoubtedly weighs heavily on her. And it's clear watching her that this experience has taken its toll.

Throughout her trial, she fought to maintain composure in the face of great obstacles. The Jodi I see appears defeated as if she knows her life hangs in the balance. She barely resembles the person I met in 2008 while on assignment for "48 Hours". Back then, Jodi was vibrant; outgoing and cheerful; she told me the story of a young woman convinced of her innocence and adamant her case would never go before a jury.

I arrived in Siskiyou County that July on a fact finding mission about the case of Travis Alexander, a good-looking young man who had been found brutally murdered in his Mesa, Ariz. home weeks earlier. Travis' on and off girlfriend Jodi Arias had quickly been identified as a person of interest in the case and was apprehended on a fugitive warrant in her hometown of Yreka, Calif., after fleeing the crime scene. The grisly murder was so heinous it quickly captured the attention of both communities as well as local and national media.

Even with the increasing media attention, I was able to get in touch with Jodi's family simply by looking them up in the phone book and they were surprisingly receptive to my calls. Over the next few days, I would speak with both Jodi and her family at length, slowly gaining their trust.

After about a week, Jodi finally agreed to meet with me for what would be her first television interview.

Days later, I was sitting in the dark corner of a Northern California jail when she floated into the room. Without hesitation, she extended her hand to greet me. "Hi, I'm Jodi" she said, and smiled. Though she had been placed on suicide watch, Jodi appeared to be holding up remarkably well for someone living a nightmare.

As a journalist, I had covered my share of crime stories across the country but I had never met someone so excited to be interviewed as Jodi. And it was clear she had some experience behind the camera, even giving my crew direction. "If you need to I would be willing to stop so they can fix the shot. If I get shiny let's take a break," she said, "I'd rather it be like no chains, if possible. So, that'd be good."

As we sat down, the conversation came easily. Jodi seemed immediately comfortable as she talked about everything from her life goals and favorite hobbies, to her fondest childhood memories. But this was no dinner date, and when the conversation turned to Travis's death, she asked if we could "come back to that later" and immediately changed the subject.

At this point, Jodi was without legal counsel, and I chose not to direct the conversation toward the alleged murder unless she brought it up. However, by the fourth tape it was clear Jodi was holding something back.

Thinking we would start to wrap things up, I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to discuss, and after a long pause, Jodi sat back in her chair and sighed. "I'm trying to think if I wanna say this or not", she began, "There's a lot of evidence that places me at Travis's house the day he was killed. I did see Travis the day that he passed away--I almost lost my life as well."

PICTURES: Slain boyfriend of Jodi Arias

I nearly fell off my chair, but was able to keep my composure and encouraged her to go on.

According to Jodi, it had started with a loud bang. She and Travis had been taking photographs in the shower when she was hit on the back of her head. When she woke-up, Travis was lying on the ground screaming, "Not like a blood-curdling horror movie girl scream", but terrified nonetheless. Two masked intruders were coming towards her down the hallway. Jodi quickly got up and ran to the closet. One intruder grabbed Jodi, threw her to the ground and pressed a gun firmly to her head. "He was telling me that I needed to leave and that if I said anything, they would kill me", she says, "They would kill my family."

But the intruder later changed his mind, Jodi says. "I just remember holding my head and closing my eyes. He pulled the trigger. And nothing happened, just a click. At that point, I pushed passed him. And I ran down the stairs."

Even though she survived, Jodi says she never once called for help. I was incredulous at what she was telling me, but pressed her about how she could have remained silent all this time. "Because I was scared", she says, "I've grown up around gangs and you don't snitch."

I found it difficult to take Jodi's story seriously because it sounded so unbelievable. But to make sure I got the facts right, I asked her to repeat it several more times. She was surprisingly agreeable, and with each telling I began to notice that she revealed fascinating new details; to me, a common sign that someone is spinning a tale. When I finally reviewed her police interrogation I was shocked to learn that she never told detectives the intruder attempted to kill her. If that was something made up on the spot so effortlessly, what other lies was she capable of telling?

Jodi Arias Interrogation Video: "If I killed Travis I would beg for the death penalty"

When Jodi was finally extradited to Phoenix a month later, she told her story again to "48 Hours". This time correspondent Maureen Maher pressed Jodi on newly emerging evidence that implicated her in Travis's death, but still Jodi stuck to her story and denied any responsibility for the murder.

Our broadcast aired in 2009, and Jodi and I remained in close contact for nearly two years thereafter. In one of our last conversations Jodi told me there was more to the story then she let on in her interviews and that Travis had a darker side. Until now, Jodi had painted her ex as a loving person with whom she discussed marriage, so where was this coming from and why the sudden change of heart?

As we now know, the story of the masked intruders is a complete fallacy. At Jodi's murder trial, her attorney's argued that Travis was an abuser who left her no choice but to defend herself that fateful day. Looking back, it's clear to me that Jodi was testing her defense or at least laying a foundation for further lies during our conversation.

Not long ago, Jodi told me, "In the end, everything will be made known. Everything will come out. And in the meantime, smile and say "cheese." If the history of this case has proven anything, there isn't any no room for "smiles" when your life is on the line and truth is not so easy to uncover. But with her recent murder conviction, it would appear that after all these years, deception has finally caught up with Jodi Arias.

On Wednesday, the state of Arizona met their requirement and proved the killing of Travis Alexander was "especially cruel." That same jury will now hear further testimony to decide whether Jodi lives or dies.

In 2008, Jodi told "48 Hours" that if she was given the choice she would take the death penalty over spending the rest of her life in prison. If her defense is unsuccessful in the penalty phase, Jodi might just get her wish after all.

Until then, I will wait and watch with the rest of America.

"48 Hours": Unraveling the lies of Jodi Arias

  • Jonathan Leach

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