By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona jury found Jodi Arias guilty on Wednesday of first-degree murder in the death of her ex-boyfriend in a trial that captured national attention for months with graphic sexual evidence and tales of a tumultuous relationship.
Arias, who could face the death penalty, has admitted to shooting 30-year-old Travis Alexander, whose body was found in the shower of his Phoenix valley home in June 2008. He had been shot in the face, stabbed 27 times and his throat had been slashed.
Arias, 32, had tried unsuccessfully to convince the jury that she acted in self-defense after Alexander attacked her because she had dropped his camera while taking photos of him in the shower.
The trial, punctuated by evidence including a sex tape and photographs of the blood-spattered crime scene, became a sensation on cable TV news with its story of an attractive and soft-spoken young woman charged with such a brutal crime.
Arias teared up as the jury's decision was read while a crowd of hundreds erupted into cheers outside the court. Jurors could have convicted Arias of a lesser crime such as second-degree murder or manslaughter, but instead found her guilty of the most serious charge possible.
"Five long years ... of lying, manipulating. Now the citizens of Arizona have spoken," Dave Hall, a friend of Alexander, told reporters as he left the court. He said a death sentence would be appropriate.
"If what she did to Travis does not justify the death penalty in America today, then what do we have one for?"
Arias, in a television interview after the verdict, indicated that she preferred a death sentence to life in prison, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office said she was subsequently placed on suicide watch.
"The worst outcome for me would be natural life, I would much rather die sooner than later," Arias, speaking slowly and calmly, said in an interview with Fox affiliate KSAZ.
"I said years ago I'd rather get death than life and that still is true today. I believe death is the ultimate freedom, so I'd rather just have my freedom as soon as I can get it," she said.
The case, which began in early January and was streamed live on the Internet, drew parallels with the similarly high-profile Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony, another young woman charged with an unthinkable crime. She was ultimately acquitted in 2011 in the death of her toddler daughter, Caylee.
In the Arizona case, jurors heard how the petite, dark-haired Arias met and began dating Alexander, a businessman and motivational speaker, in 2006. During 18 days of often salacious testimony, Arias said she and Alexander continued to have sex despite their break-up from a relationship marked by emotional and physical abuse.
Arias said Alexander had made her feel "like a prostitute" and that he kicked and attempted to choke her, although she admitted never reporting the alleged abuse to the police, seeking medical treatment or documenting it in her journal.
DESCRIBED AS MANIPULATIVE
Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi argued that the one-time waitress had snapped in the "sudden heat of passion" in the moments between a photograph she took showing Alexander alive and taking a shower, and a subsequent picture of his apparently dead body covered in blood.
But prosecutor Juan Martinez painted a different picture of Arias, portraying her as manipulative and prone to jealousy in previous relationships, and said she had meticulously planned to kill Alexander.
"Nothing indicates that this is anything less than a slaughter," he told jurors in his summing up on Friday, asking them to return a verdict of felony first-degree murder.
An attorney for Alexander's siblings, Jason Beckstead, said the family was pleased with the verdict and that his law firm planned to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Arias "in the very near future." He would not say what damages would be sought.
A friend, David Hughes, said the decision brought "tremendous closure" to Alexander's family and friends, who wept and hugged each other in the courtroom after the decision was read out.
"Once they read off that verdict, it was such a sigh of relief," Hughes told Reuters. "I believe this is exactly what the family was waiting for for the last five years."
At the sentencing trial, which begins on Thursday, the prosecution will present evidence trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that aggravating factors exist that call for the death penalty. The defense can also present rebuttal evidence.
Jurors will then determine if the aggravating circumstances were proved to exist beyond a reasonable doubt.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the state planned to present "evidence to prove the murder was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner" at the next phase of the trial.
A call to Nurmi seeking comment was not immediately returned on Wednesday.
In making his case for premeditated murder, Martinez had accused Arias of bringing the pistol used in the killing, which has not been recovered, with her from California. He said she also rented a car, removed its license plate and bought gasoline cans and fuel to conceal her journey to the Phoenix suburbs to kill Alexander.
Martinez said Arias lied after the killing to deflect any suspicion that she had been involved in his death, leaving a voice mail on Alexander's cellphone, sending flowers to his grandmother and telling detectives she was not at the crime scene before changing her story.
The jury, which reached a verdict on its third full day of deliberations, had grilled her on her claims that her mind went blank after she shot Alexander, and wanted to know why she had not called emergency responders - questions she struggled to answer.
The defense called a psychologist who testified that Arias' memory lapses stemmed from post-traumatic stress as a result of Alexander's alleged abuse and the killing itself - claims disputed by prosecutors.
In closing arguments, Martinez told the jury Alexander had sent an instant message weeks before his death saying he was "extremely afraid" of Arias because of her "stalking behavior." (Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Brunnstrom, Richard Chang, Peter Cooney and Eric Beech)