PHOENIX (CN) - A court improperly allowed Jodi Arias to testify secretly during the penalty phase of her murder trial, the Arizona Court of Appeals found.
Arias was convicted in May 2013 of first-degree murder for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, five years earlier.
Judge Sherry Stephens was forced to declare the penalty phase a mistrial, however, when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
The penalty phase began in October, with a new jury empanelled to decide Arias' sentence. On Oct. 30, though, Stephens closed the court to the press and public, claiming that a then-unknown witness refused to take the stand if the proceedings were open, and stating the proceedings were to be sealed.
Members of the Phoenix broadcast and print media challenged Stephens' ruling, claiming it violated the First Amendment.
In its opinion Tuesday, the Arizona Court of Appeals opinion revealed Arias as the unknown witness. She said, in the face of death threats, secrecy was necessary to protect her rights under the Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments.
"Her lawyer stated Arias would not testify because the media coverage of her testimony would affect her ability to think and answer questions in a manner 'she truly means' to 'fully actualize her mitigation,'" the ruling states.
Initially, Stephens had found that closing the proceeding was not necessary, suggesting that the press and public observe from an overflow courtroom.
Arias advised the court that she still refused to testify, however, "because of the pressure that I would feel because of these threats."
Although Stephens found Arias to be "manipulative, the court stated it had considered the potential legal ramifications if an appellate court later determined that Arias did not voluntarily waive her right to present evidence in mitigation," the opinion states.
A three-judge appellate panel found that Arias did not have the right to refuse to testify.
"[A] defendant who testified in open court during the guilt phase of the trial cannot decide she will only testify in the penalty phase if the press and public are excluded and her testimony is sealed until after any verdict," Judge Maurice Portley wrote for the court.
"The trial court correctly found that there was an alternative to closing the trial-having the press and public view her testimony from a different courtroom," Portley added. "Although Arias balked at the alternative, she has not demonstrated a clear and present danger to a fair trial with an impartial jury."
Portley ordered that the transcripts of Arias' testimony should be unsealed and Stephens' order vacated.
The trial court will hear the news organizations' request for the testimony to be unsealed on Jan. 5.
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