Death penalty sought against wife in fatal hammer beating

Marissa Devault, right, listens to the prosecutors' opening statement during her trial at the Superior Court in Phoenix, Az. Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
Patrick Breen, AP

PHOENIX — Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against an Arizona woman charged with fatally beating her husband with a hammer while he was sleeping, reports CBS affiliate KPHO.

Authorities say Marissa Suzanne Devault, 33, fatally wounded Dale Harrell by bludgeoning him over the head with a hammer as he slept in their suburban Phoenix home in January 2009. Harrell, 34, suffered multiple skull fractures and died at a hospice of complications from his head injuries about a month after the attack.

Prosecutor Michelle Arino said Devault needed quick money to get out of a deep financial hole. "The defendant likes money, and she likes easy money," Arino said during opening statements.

Arino said Devault thought she could get an insurance settlement that would allow her to pay off a $294,000 loan from her boyfriend, Allen Flores.

But Alan Tavassoli, one of Devault's attorneys, raised questions about the credibility of the boyfriend, who was given an immunity agreement on child pornography allegations in exchange for his testimony.

Devault claims she killed her husband in self-defense and told investigators that he had physically and sexually abused her in the past. But prosecutors contend that the attack on Harrell was premeditated and say Devault has given conflicting accounts of her husband's death. They also say the people Devault alleged were witnesses to the abuse didn't back up her claims.

At first, Devault told investigators that Harrell had attacked her while she was asleep and choked her until she was unconscious. She told police that when she came to, she saw another man who lived at their Gilbert home beating Harrell with a hammer.

But authorities say bloodstain patterns showed Harrell was alone in the bed at the time of the attack and that bloodstains on Devault's clothes were consistent with a person swinging an object repeatedly over her head.

Investigators say Devault later confessed, saying she attacked her sleeping husband in a rage after he had sexually assaulted her.

Police say they discovered Devault had been dating another man, Flores, for more than two years. In a search of Flores' computer, police say they found a journal that appeared to be written from his perspective and indicated that he had given Devault about $7,000 which she used to hire a hit man, according to court records.

Authorities say child pornography also was found on Flores' computer. County prosecutors granted Flores immunity on that allegation in exchange for his testimony in the murder case. Without such an agreement, Flores was expected to invoke his right against self-incrimination.

Tavassoli said prosecutors are giving a pass to his client's boyfriend even after he failed to report to police that Devault had allegedly claimed three days before the hammer attack that her husband had been killed in a tire-iron beating. "He (Flores) is free and clear for this trial," Tavassoli said.

Prosecutors say the immunity agreement doesn't prevent authorities from filing pornography charges against Flores. Instead, they say the agreement bars authorities from using any statement that Flores makes during the murder trial in a pornography case.