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Saving Jodi Arias: Will her stated preference for death affect her defense?

Jodi Arias looks at her family after being found of guilty of first-degree murder in the gruesome killing her one-time boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in their suburban Phoenix home, Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Phoenix. AP/The Arizona Republic, Pool, Rob Schumacher

Jodi Arias looks at her family after being found of guilty of first-degree murder on May 8, 2013, Phoenix, Ariz., in the killing her one-time boyfriend, Travis Alexander.
AP/The Arizona Republic, Pool, Rob Schumacher

(CBS/AP) -- If a jury that reconvenes Wednesday rules that convicted killer Jodi Arias murdered her lover Travis Alexander in a cruel manner, her defense team will be tasked with demonstrating that Arias is not the "worst of the worst" in order to save her from a death sentence.

There's just one problem - Arias has said she wants to die.

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"Longevity runs in my family, and I don't want to spend the rest of my natural life in one place," Arias, who prosecutors say stabbed and shot Alexander to death in 2008, told a Phoenix Fox affiliate shortly after the verdict last . "I believe death is the ultimate freedom, and I'd rather have my freedom as soon as I can get it."

Though the jury may not hear of Arias' comments, defense experts say that working to save the life of a defendant who wants to be executed can be problematic.

"Usually, you're in lock step with your client where you're moving toward the same goal, but in this case...now you're no longer together," California criminal defense attorney Michael Cardoza told Crimesider. "You're working at odds, and that makes the job very difficult."

A defense attorney may need to talk their client "off the edge," Cardoza said, sometimes calling in the help of psychologists, in order to convince them to fight for their life.

It's typical for defendants convicted of murder to be placed on suicide watch, experts say. AZcentral.com reported that Arias spent five days in a psychiatric unit following her statement to the Fox affiliate.

The divided focus between their case and the client can prove frustrating for defense attorneys, Cardoza said. But in capital cases, experts say, the predicament is far from unheard of.

"It's not unusual for clients who face the death penalty to decide they want to die," said Lisa Wayne, a Colorado criminal defense attorney and immediate past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "They give up hope," Wayne added, in an interview with Crimesider.

If conflict and lack of communication affect an attorney's ability to effectively represent their client, that attorney may move to withdraw from the case altogether, Wayne said.

During the "aggravation" phase of the trial that launches Wednesday, prosecutor Juan Martinez must convince the jury that Alexander's murder was committed in an especially cruel, heinous and depraved manner in order for the trial to advance to a penalty phase, during which the panel would weigh whether or not Arias should die.

If the jury rules Martinez hasn't proven cruelty, jurors will be dismissed and the judge will determine whether Arias should spend the rest of her life in prison or be sentenced to 25 years with the possibility of release.

Wednesday, prosecutors will likely attempt to show that Arias killed Alexander in a prolonged or torturous manner, said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the association of prosecuting attorneys, told Crimesider.

"The taking of a life is always heinously cruel," LaBahn said, though prosecutors may focus on the multiple stab wounds, Arias' use of a gun and the fact that Arias slit Alexander's throat, in order to prove her cruelty.

Martinez will likely call the county medical examiner who performed the autopsy in an attempt to show jurors that Alexander fought for his life.

Should the trial move to the penalty phase, the defense will call witnesses, likely including members of Arias' family, in order to prove that Arias may be capable of being rehabilitated, said Lisa Wayne.

They may choose to focus on Arias' lack of a previous criminal history, she said.

If the trial moves to the penalty phase and jurors weigh her execution, Arias could make a final statement before the panel. It's not clear how such a statement might affect the jury's sentence recommendation to the judge.

But it's up to Arias to decide whether she might ask to live, or to die.

"The thought of living in prison for the rest of your life at her age is pretty daunting," Wayne said. "The lawyer, much like a doctor, says, 'I'm here to save your life, and you have to fight for it."

Complete coverage of the Jodi Arias trial on Crimesider

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for CBSNews.com's Crimesider.

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