By Tim Gaynor and David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona jury failed on Thursday to reach a unanimous verdict on whether Jodi Arias should be put to death for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend, prompting the judge to set a date for a new sentencing phase of the trial.
Arias, a former waitress from California, was found guilty this month of murdering Travis Alexander, whose body was found slumped in the shower of his Phoenix-area home in June 2008. He had been stabbed 27 times, had his throat slashed and been shot in the face.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens, who had told the jury on Wednesday to resume deliberations after the panel indicated it was struggling to reach consensus, set July 18 as the date for a retrial of the penalty phase and ordered a status hearing for June with attorneys in the case.
Arias, a petite figure who had earlier pleaded with the eight men and four women on the jury to spare her life for the sake of her family, appeared to breathe a sigh of relief. Alexander's relatives wept and hugged in court.
The marathon trial that began in January had included graphic testimony and photographs, and attracted the attention of U.S. television audiences with its tale of a soft-spoken young woman charged with an unspeakable crime. Arias, 32, had argued the killing was in self-defense.
Following the penalty phase deadlock, the state has the option to retry the sentencing portion of the trial and have a new death penalty jury impaneled. Should such a jury also deadlock, capital punishment would be taken off the table.
Should prosecutors opt against a full penalty-phase jury retrial, the judge would be left to hand down a verdict of life in prison.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a statement that his office appreciated the jury's work and would now assess its next steps, but was proceeding "with the intent to retry the penalty phase."
Alexander's family, including his younger siblings, Steven and Samantha, regularly attended the trial and declined through an attorney to comment after the sentencing mistrial.
Among the issues that came up during the sentencing deliberations was whether a life term meant Arias would spend the remainder of her life in prison or would have the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Defense attorney Jennifer Willmott had advised jurors that if they sentenced Arias to life in prison, they were "sentencing her to die in prison," and there was no procedure in place to grant parole.
Prosecutor Juan Martinez countered that while there was no mechanism now to grant Arias parole, one could be put in place later.
DOUBTS OVER NEW JURY
Some legal analysts questioned whether prosecutors should go forward with a new penalty-phase jury proceeding.
"The jury that looked at all the evidence and heard five months of testimony could not agree that a death sentence was appropriate. Even though the state can take a second bite, this case should end now," said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents death-row prisoners' appeals.
"The trial phase and the aggravation are going to have to be presented to this new jury, and Maricopa County has spent a lot of money on this case already. The question is, do they want to spend more?" Baich said.
During her trial, Arias admitted she had killed Alexander, 30, but said it was in self-defense after he attacked her because she dropped his camera while taking snapshots of him in the shower. She said she did not remember stabbing him.
Prosecutors said Arias repeatedly stabbed Alexander, a businessman and motivational speaker, for two minutes as he tried to escape and that she then followed him down a hallway and slashed his throat, at which point he knew he was going to die but was unable to resist.
Legal analysts also questioned how an impartial jury could be seated for a new penalty phase considering the wide attention the case had attracted.
"This case has taken on the character of a circus rather than a trial," said Michael Kimerer, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix. "I don't see how you are going to do it."
Arias is being held in a 7-foot-by-11-foot cell for 23 hours a day in a local jail, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office said.
If Arias is sentenced to death, she would join a small number of condemned women in the United States. While women account for about one in eight U.S. murder arrests, less than 2 percent of death row inmates are women, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Only one woman - convicted killer Eva Dugan - has ever been executed in Arizona. Dugan was hanged in 1930.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Stacey Joyce, David Brunnstrom and Peter Cooney)