As the jury deliberates in the high profile Jodi Arias murder trial, jurors will need to consider the last minute addition of a defense expert witness who testified Arias suffered post traumatic stress disorder stemming from years of abuse at the hands of the victim, ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander. Arias, who confessed to killing Alexander, has maintained the position throughout that trial that Alexander was abusive and she shot him in self defense during a violent argument. In the waning moments of the trial, defense attorneys were permitted to call expert witness Robert Geffner, a psychologist expert on PTSD, to counter the prosecution’s experts who claimed Arias has a personality disorder that caused her to plan, and carry out, the murder.
Arias Defense Argues PTSD
Dr. Geffner’s testimony is an effort by the defense to support their argument that Arias was a victim. The defense argued throughout the trial that Arias was traumatized, and suffered from anxiety that drove her to defend herself with lethal force when confronted by Alexander. Dr. Geffner supported this image of Arias by arguing that all the psychological tests point to an anxiety disorder – not a personality disorder as suggested by prosecutors.
Geffner discussed results of tests taken by Arias since she was first incarcerated for the crime in 2008. According to his testimony, Arias answered questions truthfully and demonstrated severe anxiety stemming from personal trauma caused by Alexander before his death. Extreme anxiety caused by post-traumatic stress disorder explains, according to the defense, Arias’ belief that she needed to use lethal force to defend herself during the couple’s final fight. By accepting this position, jurors would not find Arias guilty of murder, but instead innocent on the grounds of self defense.
Defense Expert Witness Counters Prosecution
Dr. Geffner was called to counter the prosecution psychological expert witnesses who testified earlier in the trial that Arias showed signs of borderline personality disorder, and not PTSD. The difference, according to prosecutors, changes the nature of her intent to commit the crime from self defense to deliberate murder. Arias’ personality disorder, according to prosecution experts, caused a series of unstable relationships, episodes of inappropriate anger, pathological lying, and instances of paranoia – all of which could have led Arias to commit the crime and subsequently lie about the circumstances of the event.
If jurors are convinced that Arias has personality disorder, and not PTSD, then the prosecution’s position that she drove to Alexander’s house with the intent to kill is supported by her mental condition. On the other hand, should jurors believe that Arias instead suffered from severe anxiety caused by traumatic experience, then accepting Arias as a victim defending herself becomes plausible – giving the defense a better chance of success.
Weight of Expert Witness Testimony
Psychological expert witness testimony in murder trials is not uncommon – particularly if the defendant has confessed to the crime claiming heat of passion or self defense. Testimony to the defendant’s psychological state becomes critical because intent is a necessary element to murder. Should the defense be able to demonstrate through expert witness testimony that the defendant’s mental or emotional condition diminish or eliminate the intent to kill, then the element of murder is not satisfied and the defendant is not guilty of the crime charged. Typically the defendant will be instead guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, but that depends on state law and the efforts of the prosecution.
Prosecutors also rely on psychological expert witnesses to show that the defendant had the mental or emotional facilities that made it possible to plan and carry out a murder. This dueling expert witness testimony is presented for jurors to consider along with the rest of the physical evidence and facts of the case, and how much weight is attributed to psychological analysis depends on the quality of the expert, the strength of their analysis, and how the remaining evidence aligns with the alleged psychological condition.
Jodi Arias is a polarizing figure, and has been alternatively painted as a jealous liar who murdered her ex-boyfriend or a victim of psychological abuse who acted to defend herself in a threatening situation. Whether the last minute efforts of Dr. Geffner and Arias’ defense team successfully convince jurors of the latter portrait remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome, this case serves as a high profile example of the importance of psychological expert witnesses in criminal murder trials.