Diane Dimond: Murder can be mesmerizing
In the summer of 2008, Jodi Arias stabbed her boyfriend nearly 30 times, slashed his throat, shot him in the head and left him in the shower of his Mesa, Arizona, home. Eleven days later, the attractive 28-year-old was arrested, and the public became transfixed by her case.
Nearly seven years after the vicious murder, Arias has yet to be sentenced on the finding that she is guilty of the first-degree premeditated murder of Travis Alexander. Two separate juries have deadlocked on whether she should be executed for the crime. Now, under Arizona law, the death penalty is off the table. Later this month, a judge will finally announce her sentence — likely life in prison.
Legions of court watchers remain fascinated by her case. And I want to understand why that murder of all the murders in America has commanded so much public attention.
“If she was a homely, overweight Korean man, we’d never have heard about her,” Dr. Scott Bonn, a professor of sociology and criminology told me during a conversation from his office at Drew University. He believes Arias was demonized by the media from the beginning.
To put it bluntly, he said, “Pretty young white girls who sing in the choir are just not supposed to hack up their boyfriends.”
But she did. She ultimately admitted to committing the murder, saying it was self-defense. But she first told police she wasn’t at Alexander’s home when he died. She also once claimed masked intruders suddenly broke in, assaulted her and murdered Alexander.
What a liar! Is that why so many people, worldwide, were mesmerized by her case? Was the attraction her ability to tell such bald-faced lies?
Dr. Bonn, who teaches courses on sociology and criminal behaviors, thinks it goes deeper than that. It’s not about Jodi; it’s about us.
Two very different camps of people have persistently followed the case and viscerally either hate or love this convicted killer, their feelings fueled by massive and exploitative TV coverage. HLN’s Nancy Grace led the charge, and when her ratings soared, other TV outlets jumped on the Arias bandwagon.
Those who see Arias as the Devil incarnate have long demanded her execution, and when one juror — juror No. 17 — deprived them by refusing to vote for the death penalty, the 33-year-old mother of three had her identity and home address plastered across the internet. She has received death threats and police protection.
But others continue to passionately support Arias. They proclaim her innocence and viciously attack the late Travis Alexander, calling him a domestic abuser and pedophile, repeating Arias’ unsubstantiated claims at trial that she had been victimized by Alexander and had once caught him looking at child porn. They fervently believe the claim of self-defense.
Why do so many of us expend so much psychic energy either loving or hating defendants like Jodi Arias? Why does anyone bother to spend time vilifying witnesses or reporters or threatening jurors? Dr. Bonn says the fixation stems from society’s angry and fearful nature.
“Since 9-11 … We’re waiting for the next shoe to fall; we don’t know who to trust anymore,” he said. “So we go around believing the world is full of evil. … We’re looking for justice these days, and if Jodi is put to death, then we feel justice is returning.”
Dr. Kristina Randall, a psychotherapist who works with troubled young women, writes that Arias supporters are likely damaged souls who identify with the killer’s claims of abuse by Alexander. Female supporters, she writes, may be “Hating themselves for not being able to end their abuse and now celebrate the fact that … Jodi’s victory is now their victory.” Male supporters of this convicted killer may be on her side because, “They watched their father abuse their mother, couldn’t stop the abuse and now celebrate Jodi’s achieving what they could not.”
Maybe the mesmerized just lead boring lives and need something to fill the void.
Dr. Bonn, author of a recent book on serial killers, as written to Jodi Arias to ask her to participate in a book about how her legal process has proceeded over the years under the white hot glare of unrelenting media coverage. If she says yes, his readers may get a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a justice system that struggles mightily — yet fruitlessly — to stay detached from public opinion.