PHOENIX (AP) — Jurors decided Monday that an Arizona woman convicted of killing her husband with a hammer qualifies for the death penalty because she carried out the killing in a cruel way.
The decision clears the way for jurors to now consider whether they will imprison Marissa Suzanne Devault for life or sentence her to death for the fatal beating of Dale Harrell in 2009. Lawyers are scheduled to make opening arguments Tuesday in the trial's penalty phase.
Jurors determined she was eligible for the death penalty because she killed her husband in an especially cruel manner. They were unable to reach a decision on another "aggravating factor" alleged by prosecutors — that she killed her husband for financial gain.
If jurors had found Devault didn't qualify for execution, then a judge would have had to sentence her to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.
Devault was convicted last Tuesday of first-degree murder after jurors deliberated for 5 1/2 days.
Prosecutors say Devault killed Harrell in a failed bid to collect on a life insurance policy to repay about $300,000 in loans from her boyfriend. Devault says she killed her husband in self-defense and told investigators he had physically and sexually abused her in the past.
The case had many salacious elements, including testimony about plots to hire a hit man and the fact that Devault was a former stripper who met her boyfriend on a sugar-daddy dating website. But the judge in the case made extensive efforts to keep the trial from becoming the spectacle that enveloped the Jodi Arias case in the same courthouse a year ago.
He warned the attorneys involved that he did not want any Arias trial fanatics on the jury, and he tried to keep certain sensational elements out of the trial. Devault's past as a stripper, for instance, was barely mentioned during the trial. The case attracted nowhere near the attention of the Arias trial despite some similar circumstances.
Arias was spared the death penalty after her jury deadlocked in the penalty phase of her trial.
Like Arias, Devault maintains she killed in self-defense.
But prosecutors contend the attack on Harrell was premeditated and say Devault gave conflicting accounts of her husband's death. Harrell, 34, suffered multiple skull fractures in the January 2009 attack at the couple's home in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. He died nearly a month later at a hospice because of complications from his head injuries.
Devault initially told investigators that her husband attacked her while she was asleep and choked her until she was unconscious. She also told police that when she woke up, she saw another man who lived at their home beating Harrell with a hammer.
But investigators say Devault later confessed to attacking her husband, saying she pummeled him in a rage as he slept after he sexually assaulted her.
The key prosecution witness was Devault's former boyfriend, Allen Flores, a Yale University-educated management consultant who is 20 years older than Devault and had loaned her $300,000 during their two-year relationship.
Flores testified that Devault wanted to either hire someone to kill Harrell, or kill him herself and tell police he tried to rape her after a night of drinking.
Devault's attorneys attacked Flores' credibility, noting he was given an immunity agreement on child-pornography allegations in exchange for his testimony. The child pornography was found on Flores' computer during a search that was part of the murder investigation, authorities said.